Hell or High Water: Movie Review
Before last year, Taylor Sheridan was a relatively unknown actor, playing smaller parts in shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars. Then he made his screenwriting debut with Sicario, and not only did he turn plenty of heads, he earned a Writer’s Guild nomination. And I’ll confess that it made me jot a quick note to remember this Sheridan guy and keep an eye out for his next script, whenever it should arrive.
Turns out he had already written what would become his next produced screenplay years earlier--a story of two brothers who rob banks in west Texas to pay off a loan that’s about to default. That script, titled Comancheria, was named the winner of the 2012 Black List (as the best unproduced screenplay).
Comancheria then became Hell or High Water, and it’s every bit of what made Sicario so memorable--smart, beautiful, bleak, and completely engrossing. The story itself might be relatively standard among the cops-n-robbers genre, but the way Sheridan tells it makes it feel fresh and unique. Anchored by David Mackenzie’s sparse direction and lifted further by superb performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water ends the summer as the best movie of the season. And even though it may be unjustly forgotten when awards season rolls around in four or five months, it’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the year’s finest films.
Pine stars as Toby Howard, a divorced father who provided hospice care for his recently departed mother. He’s as quiet and careful as his ex-con brother Tanner (Foster) is boisterous and brash. With less than a week to go until they default on a bad loan and lose the family ranch, the brothers decide to (poetically) steal from the very bank itching to foreclose on the land.
Chasing the two brothers is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s less than a month from retiring and who enjoys nothing more in life than teasing his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner. When Hamilton hears about the robberies, he latches onto them like a hornet on a Coke can. He wants one last score before heading out to pasture.
Within minutes of the movie theater going dark, Sheridan proves his brilliant Sicario script wasn’t a fluke. His deft use of language, ability to keep the audience guessing, and gift for turning the mundane into gold make it seem like we are truly visiting the world of west Texas and the Howard boys. Keep an ear out for a hilarious, quick interchange on Dr. Pepper vs. Mr. Pibb, and pay attention to the squeal of the rusty windmill in the background as Toby and Tanner lament their situation. Those kind of moments, coupled with riveting performances from the cast, provides the film with a crystal-clear sense of immediacy and realism. You’re hooked, and it refuses to let you go.
Mackenzie drops us into a land of tumbleweeds and shuttered storefronts and breathes real life into Sheridan’s script. At no point does Hell or High Water feel like a movie, and it certainly never seems like we’re watching Captain Kirk and Russell Corwin try to avoid capture at the hands of The Dude. It’s a perfectly genuine film full of true-to-life people who are just trying to make it through to the next day. And what a hell of a ride it is.