A western set in the twenty-first century is like finding a rattlesnake curled up around the gearshift of your car. It’s rare, an unusually beautiful thing to come across and keeps you on your toes. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan have created a taut new modern western worthy of this year’s Oscar race, Hell or High Water.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers turned bandits. In the opening scenes, we watch them dawn black ski masks and try to rob a bank before it’s even open. While it seems they’ve made a mistake, the scene does not loosen the suspense. Every robbery, hothead Tanner leads the way, and getaways are when cautious Toby tries to cool him down.
A Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), takes the case. He drags his partner along for one last chase as he tries to find the bandits and predict which bank branch they will hit next. But the Howard boys are smart, burying old getaway cars, taking only small bills that won’t be tracked and cashing them in as winnings at Indian casinos. They plan to pay off the debt on their late mother’s land and then let the oil men churn out oil, making them more and more money. Their family won’t have to be poor anymore. But before the end, blood will be spilt.
There is a lot I like about Hell or High Water. The story is tight, suspenseful and the editing serves it well at a perfect pace. Bridges nails his role and is easily my favorite character in the film. The soundtrack provides a perfect background to the story. Dollar Bill Blues and Outlaw State of Mind are growing to be new favorite songs of mine. And even with a story of outrunning the law, time is taken to take in the beauty of the Texas landscape, oil pumps and all.
Hell or High Water is nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, best editing and original screenplay. Jeff Bridges earned his seventh nomination for portraying the Texas Ranger on the hunt. While I’m not sure if the film will walk out of Oscar night holding any awards, I believe all these nominations are well deserved.
Films like Hell or High Water are a rare treat these days. Many movies focusing on outrunning the law can run on the adrenaline too much and fizzle out quickly. Hell or High Water is a slow, steady, controlled burn. It’s easy to want to go a little too crazy with a story like this, but the artists at work here have better, more satisfying tricks up their sleeves. It pays off well and I applaud their fine work.
“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”