Hell or High Water (2016)



"I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.""I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore."

“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”


Opening Hell or High Water with a sloppy bank robbery can raise a couple questions. 1) why are these two men dressed in all black with poorly cut ski masks robbing a bank and 2) how could they possibly get away with it. The next robbery goes somewhat smoother – if what you call a civilian taking out his weapon and firing it at the two men smooth, but these first two robberies aren’t the elaborately planned out stylized ones we’ve seen in the past – there’s a deeper meaning behind the criminals’ motivations that gets told as their story moves forward. 

Turns out, the two men who pulled off the robberies, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Bill Foster) who are brothers have specific motivations for robbing Texas Midland branches. When pulling these smaller heists, they take only the money from the draws, loose bills and carry on their way. It’s a brilliant plan since there are no dye packs stolen. But that explanation comes later on in the film. Shot from Toby’s point of view – it has to otherwise whats the point? The film would feel open ended and unsatisfactory.  

Texas Midland bank foreclosed on the family ranch after Toby and Tanner’s Mother passed away. With only a few days to get the money to pay off the debt, the brothers choose to rob banks to then pay it back as a form of served justice. It’s an elaborate plan after all conceived by Toby who wants a better life for his two sons. Tanner is doing this solely because his brother asked him to but he’s a wildcard and an ex-con who has been free for a year. He doesn’t plan on going back but there’s a nature in Tanner that attracts violence.

“You may get to have some fun before they send you off to the rocking chair yet.”

Hell or High Water written by Taylor Sheridan is more than what is presented on the surface. Toby’s purpose for pulling off these heists gives much needed depth to his character archetype. Because of the depth in character, we can sympathize with Toby and root for him and his plan to be carried out successfully. Even though he is playing the “villain” in his mind he’s the hero and that’s how most villain’s see themselves in their quests. Unfortunately, in most stories, that type of character isn’t given enough development, but Taylor Sheridan wrote his characters brilliantly enough to smooth those edges. 

The strongest aspect of Sheridan’s script are the characters and their relationships toward one another. There are two sets of relationships that are focused on with enough time to care for all involved. Toby and Tanner’s relationship and Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus and Alberto’s relationship centers around work. Marcus is close to retirement and jokingly death, but he never misses an opportunity to take jabs at Alberto’s race and heritage. At times it can come across as unsettling but for Marcus it’s all fun and games and Alberto never takes it too seriously either. Because of this they form a strong connection that easily rivals Toby and Tanner. 

There is no doubt that Hell or High Water is a western. The landscapes and cinematography shot by Giles Nuttgens shows off the beauty of the state of Texas’ wide-open space. What Giles is also able to pull off with ease is the final gunslinger shootout giving it an authentic western standoff feeling.

“These boys know exactly what they’re doing, they’re trying to raise a certain amount that’s my guess.”

Amidst the violence and chaos that surrounds Toby and Tanner are unexpected but necessary moments of intimacy. It’s slows the pacing down and allows the story to take a deep breath. The more intimate moments begin early when Toby and Tanner are at a diner and Tanner goes off to do something reckless. Toby has a conversation with the waitress (Katy Mixon) and it’s a sweet moment that catches you off guard, but it works within the confines of the world Sheridan creates. The same can be said about the moment Toby shares with his oldest son. This scene proves that Toby isn’t his brother – violent, reckless unhinged. He just wants a better life for his kids so they can live comfortably and never have to worry about money again. 

There are very few times when original films are just that, original. Hell or High Water is certainly an original IP that takes inspirations from previous films. It is derivative with a simple premise but that’s not necessarily a bad thing Sheridan and director David Mackenzie make the film feel original while not borrowing too many ideas already used. I get a strong No Country for Old Men, Heat and Fargo vibe while watching this not because Jeff Bridges is in both No Country and this, but by how the story is constructed, how the tone is set and how the story is told from start to finish. It’s an ode to a genre so beloved by many that respects and honors what came before it.  

Strong performances take center stage in Sheridan’s script. He balances the four men so incredibly well giving each a moment to shine in the spotlight especially Jeff’s Marcus in the final standoff. Action packed, yes but it’s the moments of intimacy that stand out the most for me. 4.5 out of 5.

So, tell me, have you seen Hell or High Water and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think. 

Hell or High Water is written by Taylor Sheridan & directed by David Mackenzie is Rated R and has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Hell or High Water was released on August 12, 2016 and has a runtime of 1 hour and 42 minutes. Hell or High Water can be bought by online retailers including iTunes, Amazon & Google.


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