The Frog, he revieweth.
And this fine day he doth review ….
Hell or High Water is a slow-burning thriller from the man who directed Starred Up, and the other man who wrote Sicario. It’s been getting seriously good reviews on both sides of the pond, and is being hyped as “The Best Film of 2016” thus far by many publications.
Is it, though?
The film focuses on two brothers, Tanner and Toby (although we only learn their names in the closing stretch which really confused me). The two trawl through rural Texas as they go on a low-stakes spree of small bank heists – only small bills direct from the register, so as to avoid traceable money belonging to the bank itself. As they hit 3 banks in one day, they catch the attention of local lawman Marcus Hamilton, who, along with his partner Alberto, track the men down over 48 hours of slowly increasing tension.
The film stars Chris Pine
And Jeff Bridges
The beautiful score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
So it is any good? Well, yes. It’s very good. It’s tense, it’s tautly directed, it looks gorgeous, the music is great, and the acting in particular is absolutely brilliant.
But Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle, does it take it’s time getting there.
Here is an artist’s rendering of the first act of Hell or High Water.
Yeah, it’s slow is what I’m saying. The early stretch of this film involves some very low-stakes hold-ups, and several long stretches where two sets of two people drive around mumbling in thick Texas drawls to each other and I genuinely missed some of the dialogue, seriously. Whoever did the sound on this film deserves an award just for picking some of this shit up in the first place. Here’s a few choice scenes –
For a long time, not a lot happens. and I’m not gonna lie dear reader, I got worried. I thought it was all style over substance. I thought it was all low-lit non-conversations that seemed “Arty” and would go nowhere. I worried. I fretted.
I should not have worried.
Hell or High Water knows exactly what it is doing. Sure, it’s characters are stock types (Jittery Nutjob, Bad Guy with a Heart of Gold, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country, Native American Man etc), but it is blessed with a cast that know exactly how to sell what they are given.
Chris Pine really surprised me in this film. I’m not going to lie, I only knew him as Cap’n “Reboot” Kirk , but his performance in this film is probably the highlight for me. Subtle and nuanced, he does almost nothing and is still the most watchable thing on screen. And that says a lot, considering his partner for the film is Ben Foster in one of his prototypical (X-Men Notwithstanding) Ben Foster roles.
Foster is also excellent in the much more showy role of professional trouble-maker Tanner. He makes even the odd sexual assault vaguely charming (OK, not really but he just about maintains audience empathy despite several despicable acts throughout so fair do’s to him).
Jeff Bridges is just Rooster Cogburn 2.0 if I’m honest, but damn if he doesn’t sell it. It seems like he’s on autopilot for some scenes but he pulls out all the stops in the finale and he is just brilliant. God Damn that guy is brilliant. He is ably matched by the supremely understated Gil Birmingham as Alberto.
The film is jam-packed with off-beat Coen-esque character actors doing excellent work in bit parts – keep an eye out for the T-bone Waitress (though how could you miss her in fairness) who goes on an epic rant involving green beans.
The long slow dance of the film comes to a head in an extended sequence of violence and nastiness and bleak sudden death that ensures that everything that comes before it is clearer in hindsight. It contains two reaction shots from Jeff Bridges that are worth the price of admission alone.
And then, in a wonderful epilogue, we are given a true old-school Western standoff that ends in a very 2016 way. The final shot is a fantastic parting gift from the filmmakers, and one leaves the film feeling very satisfied indeed.
Hell Or High Water is not high art. It is not a “masterpiece”, a word that is thrown around too easy these days.
It is, however, an excellent Western Wolf in a Heist Thriller’s clothing.
If you can weather its early stumbles – one-note characters, monosyllabic conversations, basic building-block motivations (HOHW is another winner of the Suicide Squad Dead Motivational Family Member Award) – you will be treated to a trio of excellent performances, some wonderful cinematography and beautiful music.
As a sucker for Westerns (especially those featuring Nick Cave – shout out to my favourite film The Proposition), it gets a hefty Frog Recommendation.