‘Hell or High Water’ a Slow-Burn Thriller with Great Script

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterWell it took until mid-August but we finally got a genuinely good summer movie.

“Hell or High Water” stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine as two brothers who rob banks in West Texas, as aging Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham try to hunt them down. David Mackenzie directs.

The best way I can describe the feel of this movie is “No Country for Old Men” meets “Sicario.” It has the open, destitute Texas feel about it while an uneasy sense builds. You are immersed into a world of small, run-down towns where every man carries a gun and dons a cowboy hat, with billboards at every dusty turn advertising refinancing and credit help. Mackenzie, partnered with “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, constantly tighten the rope in this slow-burner, and even if they payoff isn’t as grand as one may hope for, the journey itself is worth taking.

Jeff Bridges, as my friend says, is just a hair above Nick Nolte as far as delivering barely-audible dialogue and he again here mumbles many of his lines but to great results. Unlike “True Grit” where Bridges plays an aging lawman who still acts like he’s in the peak of his career, he instead this time accepts he is at the end of the road, constantly referring to the front porch he doesn’t want to spend every day of the rest of his life. Bridges has had better performances than this one but he has several scenes, including one where his emotions flip on the drop of a hat, which are powerful stuff.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster both deliver great performances too playing brothers, bonded by blood but little else. Foster plays his normal loose-cannon nut (essentially portraying the same character from the fantastic “3:10 to Yuma”) while Pine plays his calm-headed and plotting brother. The two have solid give-and-take and you buy their relationship, and for what it’s worth this is the best role of Pine’s career.

The film’s execution, like I said above, is brilliantly set up and drops you right into the middle of this world. Set in modern day Texas, people love their steak and hate their banks. Few seem too shaken up to see the brothers stealing the money (for reasons we discover as the film wears on), and you get a sense of the danger and lack of hope that surrounds these small communities, many of which are out quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Sheridan’s script has some moments of dark humor and solid bits of dialogue, and they keep things from ever falling too grim or stale.

The biggest problem I have with “High Water” is the same issue I drew with “Sicario” and that is despite its great ability to build up tension and build an uneasy atmosphere, the string never snaps, the air is never let out of the balloon. The film has its climax but, for me at least, the payoff wasn’t worth what the film had been building towards. It can be argued that that’s the film’s point, that this is a picture grounded in reality and life doesn’t always have endings that tie up in a nice bow; but since it is a movie, I like all questions answered and all issues resolved.

“Hell or High Water” is a very good film that at times scratches greatness. It has four solid center performances (Birmingham is also good as Bridges’ partner) and if you are a fan of slow-burners then this is your movie. This feels like one of those films that will stick with me and the more I think about it the more I’ll find to compliment it on, and for the time being it sits as one of the best films of 2016.

Critics Rating: 8/10

CBS Films

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