“Hell or High Water” delivers gripping drama, action

The Chris Pine-Jeff Bridges modern western is an engrossing and thrilling character study that isn’t afraid to take its characters into morally grey territory.

Eric Anderson, A&E Editor

In a fairly bizarre turn of events, it appears that film distributors decided to wait until August before finally releasing a majority of this summer’s best films. And with the release of the new dramatic Western “Hell or High Water” over Labor Day weekend, it seems they were saving the best for last.

With a few exceptions, such as James Wan’s stellar horror picture “The Conjuring 2” and the excellent sci-fi sequel “Star Trek Beyond,” few films in June or July were anything of special note, between middling Hollywood efforts (e.g. “The Legend of Tarzan”) or uninteresting indie pieces (e.g. “The Lobster.”) Then, on the second weekend of August, the riotously funny spoof picture “Sausage Party” and the stellar family tearjerker “Pete’s Dragon” both entered the marketplace, charging a fairly dull season with new life. They, in turn, were followed by another animated winner, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” All of these films are well worth the theatrical experience, and are certainly among the best and cleverest films of the summer. And yet the most interesting film of the summer, perhaps the year so far, might just be an unassuming little Western no one knew about a month ago.

Directed by Dave Mackenzie (“Starred Up,”) “Hell or High Water” is a modern-day Western crime drama starring Jeff Bridges (“True Grit,”) Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) and Ben Foster (“Lone Survivor.”) Pine and Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, the latter of whom is an ex-con, as they embark on a string of bank robberies, intending to use the money to buy back their late mother’s ranch for Toby’s children. Bridges plays a Texas Ranger on the edge of retirement who, with his fellow Ranger Alberto (played by Gil Birmingham,) attempts to track down the duo. Along the way, the brothers’ relationship finds itself alternately strained and strengthened as the otherwise straight-laced Toby is simultaneously in awe of and repulsed by his brother, and Bridges’ character pushes back against the inevitability of his own age.

Even on a purely technical level, “Hell or High Water” is an entrancing watch. The Texan landscape is framed gorgeously, with long solitary roads against a setting sun and wheat fields raging with wildfire. The film has a frequent sense of emptiness, with most scenes having no more than three or four characters sharing a setting. The small scope of the characters and their ambitions contrast with the grand canvas of the Texas setting. The musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (“Lawless”) proves a haunting backdrop to the whole affair, with burning tension and frustration reflected in the effectively grating strokes of electric violins and ominous plucking of bass guitars.

The acting is superb all around. Chris Pine, following up his effective turn in “Star Trek Beyond,” proves himself to be an actor with significant range, giving a stellar portrayal of a man knowingly gambling his own soul to atone for past sins. Ben Foster is a revelation as Tanner, an unrepentant criminal and yet a three-dimensional human being who genuinely loves his brother in spite of their different approaches to morality. Bridges and Birmingham, meanwhile, maintain a strong interpersonal dynamic, with a mutual respect that shines through in spite of (and to some degree, because of) Bridges’ character’s frequent jests about his partner’s Native American heritage.

“Hell or High Water” is a modern Western with a tone not unlike that of “No Country for Old Men.” Even more so that that film, however, Mackenzie’s picture takes its characters to a number of dark places, and a straight-laced hero is nowhere to be found. The characters are well-developed and relatable, with understandable motivations and engaging personalities. The famously hammy Jeff Bridges dials himself back to a reasonable level, and his character never feels like a caricature, nor does Pine’s, Foster’s or Birmingham’s. And that relatability serves to enhance the film in all its aspects, including the tone, the drama, the atmosphere and the suspense, from its most simple moments to its most shocking turns.

“Hell or High Water” successfully platformed to Walla Walla after an initial limited release, and it comes at a very high recommendation. The film is a must-see for fans of drama, suspense, crime fiction, Westerns and character pieces. It will be interesting to see if the movie is remembered come awards season; even this far out, it’s safe to say it has earned a place at the table.