Hell or High Water

US | 2016 | Directed by David Mackenzie

Logline: A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family's ranch in West Texas.

The last movie I saw of Mackenzie’s was Young Adam, back in 2003. He’s made seven features since then, and this one is an absolute cracker, I’m sure his doubt best yet. It’s a modern-day Western with noir undertones. The script (which had been kicking around on the un-produced hot list since 2011) is written by actor-cum-writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who penned Sicario, and it’s a blistering tale of desperation unraveling, infused with gritty violence, and punctuated by sharp dialogue, shot from the hip. 

Toby (Chris Pine) has hooked up with his loose cannon brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who’s just a year out of prison and deadset on making trouble for himself. Toby has bridges to repair with his two adolescent sons, and the best way he knows how is to make sure the homestead and the oil beneath it becomes their property. To do so he needs some serious cash, and he needs it delivered to the bank before the foreclosure. This is imperative, hell or high water. 

Tanner and Toby begin robbing local banks, collecting small, but tidy sums, nothing too greedy, that way they’re not ending up with traceable dough. But Sheriff Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), on the eve of retirement, becomes hellbent on sorting these lads out, especially after the robbing spree drama escalates. Hamilton’s deputy Parker (Gil Birmingham) has to endure Hamilton’s crass jokes for a few more days. Toby has to put up with Tanner’s inherent obnoxiousness for about the same. 

Sporting three high calibre performances, Hell or High Water canters along steadily, providing cattle prods at all the right spots. It’s a beautifully paced thriller, and the chemistry between Pine and Foster is fantastic, neither have been better. Bridges pulls out a gnarly, grizzled, and oh-so-stubborn pearler of a performance, arguably a career best, and it’s the perfect, languid counterpoint to the hot shots he’s pursuing. Special nod to three small roles; the sassy diner waitress, Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon), the no bullshit T-Bone waitress (Margaret Bowman), and the oddly uncredited role of Emily (Melanie Papalia), who attempts to seduce Toby at the casino. 

Hell or High Water is one of those movies you sense how the story is going to play out, and you’re looking forward to it, yet the slight curve it takes is incredibly rewarding. The final scene is masterfully handled, and it fits like grubby hand in cowboy glove. Sheridan and Mackenzie are not trying to reinvent the wheel, they just know, like the best horror filmmakers, that if you put the right actors in place, give them some meat to chew on, gift them authentic locations, and shield them with atmospheric music, and you’ve got yourself a sure-fire winner.  

Along with Blood Father, Hell or High Water is easily one of the best non-horror genre flicks this year. Forget the old school histrionics of The Hateful Eight, this is where the real dust is being kicked up. Another fave to add to my list. I smell major accolades on their way.