When we think about interesting movie settings, we might think of some exotic locale, perhaps a far off land – maybe a jungle or the base of a volcano. But great cinematic landscapes don’t have to be on the other side of the world. Sometimes an effective movie setting is one that is rarely depicted, but not so far away. Such was the case for Hell or High Water, an enthralling film capturing a slice of southwestern America. The Texas setting lent itself surprisingly well to the story of two brothers who chart a dangerous course through the Bible Belt.
When we meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, The Finest Hours) they are brazenly robbing a small bank. Inexperienced but resourceful, the pair is bumbling in their execution but genius in their foresight. Tanner is fiery and violent, while Toby is sympathetic and measured, each the perfect foil. Inevitably, the siblings soon draw the ire of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, True Grit), a small town sheriff near retirement (a familiar trope, I know). He and his partner begin tracking the duo, mapping their likely targets, surmising that they are stealing small amounts to reach a modest, specific goal. If they can determine the motive, perhaps they can narrow in on a suspect.
Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) weave an atmospheric tale permeating with desperate energy. Toby and Tanner are just a half step ahead of the law, and it could all come crumbling down at any moment. As their motivation for the robberies is revealed, we feel the weight of their burden. A sense of foreboding hangs like a cloud over the film, hinting that the pair is on borrowed time. Many viewers will probably relate to the movie’s themes, particularly the brothers’ sense of frustration at the seemingly short hand life has dealt them, always a day late and a dollar short. Blue-collar, working class, somewhat marginalized and essentially impoverished.
The film was reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ work, with cinematography and setting similar to both No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. I could also see Sheridan’s hand reflected in the story, which bore cinematic similarity to his work in Sicario. The Texas landscape was grimy and hot, and their desperation was palpable. Perhaps I shouldn’t have rooted for them, but I did – which is a testament to the film’s story and two leads. Foster and Pine gave textured performances, evincing wide-ranging emotion. While there has been praise from critics, the average moviegoer may be reluctant to see this film – but don’t be one of those people. Hell or High Water has been one of the better films of 2016, so far. Grade: A