One of the most criminally overlooked films at awards ceremonies in 2015 was Sicario. While Sicario did not win a single award and was never even nominated for Best Picture, though it was certainly deserving, it was nominated on 10 separate occasions at 10 separate awards programs for Best Original Screenplay. The writer of that screenplay was one Taylor Sheridan, and one year later he’s showing us that his first screenplay was not a fluke and loudly announcing with Hell or High Water that we had best get used to hearing his name at those ceremonies year after year for the forseeable future.
Hell or High Water features Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers on a bank robbing spree across rural West Texas and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, the Texas Rangers partners out to find and put a stop to them. All four of these men are at the top of their game giving us four characters who are likable, sympathetic, flawed, surprising, and most of all, real. For Jeff Bridges, this is a performance we’ve come to expect, though he outdoes even himself here, and for the other three we get to see some truly break out performances from three men who have until now been known more for being pretty than for being talented.
The West Texas scenery is filmed gorgeously, and makes what could have been a well done, but more or less typical crime thriller into a modern day Western in which you can believe that in the 21st Century there are still swathes of the American West still waiting for someone to come settle them (steal them) and that there can still be cowboys riding around in an untamed frontier. It’s great to see a modern film that looks gorgeous and doesn’t have to rely at all on special effects to get the job done, but just excellent camera work and old fashioned art direction.
David Mackenzie gives us nearly perfect direction in Hell or High Water. Not only does he manage to get the best performances of their lives out of his main cast of actors, but he also gets us a film that relies a great deal on dialogue and quiet visuals to still have the pacing and tension of an action movie. It seems like not a second is wasted, but the movie still has time to spend on small details which add so much to the overall experience. Mackenzie knew exactly what to cut and keep, how long to hold a shot, and when it was more important to focus on story and when on character.
The greatest star of Hell or Highwater, though, is the absolutely brilliant screenplay by the aforementioned Taylor Sheridan. It gives us a script with a perfect pairing of antagonists and protagonists, not just in ability, but in theme as well. We have characters who are mirror images of each other, we have strong themes about what makes family and what strong family ties make us willing to do for one another, and some of the crispest and wittiest dialogue you will hear this year. It does all this without ever calling attention to itself. You never once hear a line and think the writer is attempting to be clever or have it called to your attention that he’s attempting to make a point. The screenplay for Hell or High Water is always subtly brilliant, but it absolutely is brilliant through and through.
There never has been, nor do I think there ever can be, a perfect movie. But, I’ll be damned if I can think of any real flaws in Hell or High Water beyond what they possibly could have done, which is never a way to judge a movie. This is a film I recommend everyone sees, and in the theaters so you don’t miss out on the gorgeous cinematography on display. I will double down on this statement for those who have any interest in the Oscars or Golden Globes, because if you don’t see Hell or High Water garnering multiple nominations come that season, I’ll eat a ten gallon hat.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10