26 September 2016

Hell or High Water review

Films are as much a product of the time they were made in as they are the product of those who made them, and Hell or High Water demonstrates that better than most. It's a film that could only really be created in today's climate, a modern Western with a strong anti-capitalist streak that's going to resonant with an awful lot of people. We follow brothers Toby and Tanner Howard as they rob a series of banks in order to pay off a reverse mortgage that their late mother took out on family land, and in doing so earn the ire of soon-to-be retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton.

The Texas presented to us in Hell or High Water is a thoroughly depressing place, one still struggling to recover from the effects of the financial crisis. The small towns we find ourselves in are virtually abandoned, strip-mined by banks that have successfully turned financial difficulties into easy profit, and that into the new norm. This is the environment created by the banks, which in turn creates people like the Howard brothers - regardless of the actions they take, Hell or High Water places the ultimate blame on the banks themselves for putting the brothers in a position where their actions are necessary. It ensures that we understand that the people are victims of the banks far more than the banks are victims of the people, and in doing so marks itself as one of the most anti-establishment films of the year.

Which wouldn't mean diddly-squat if Hell or High Water wasn't also an incredibly well made movie, but it is. The screenplay (written by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan) won the Black List in 2012, and it isn't difficult to see why; it's a great story, filled with interesting characters and an efficient plot, and director David Mackenzie brings it to the screen with confidence. There is never a moment in Hell or High Water where he isn't in total control of the movie, whether that be through a tight grip on tone or a masterful handling of the pace throughout.

And Hell or High Water might not be jam-packed with action, but what little it does contain is delivered to us with the same sense of craft as the rest of the movie. It's not big in scale, of course - the biggest the action ever gets here is a relatively small shootout towards the end of the movie - but it never fails to draw us in thanks to Mackenzie's ability to imbue every sequence with a tension and urgency, which when combined with our affection for the characters involved helps make Hell or High Water a far more engaging film than most.

It's also worth mentioning just how good the performances are in Hell or High Water. Jeff Bridges is obviously perfect as aged lawman Marcus Hamilton, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster are both surprisingly great as Toby and Tanner Howard respectively, sharing a brotherly bond that feels incredibly authentic throughout. But it isn't just the leads that manage to impress here - Gil Birmingham (playing the partner of Jeff Brides' Marcus Hamilton) and especially Katy Mixon (playing a small town waitress) give memorable, human performances in roles that could have otherwise gone virtually unnoticed.

All of which add up to make Hell or High Water not just a solid, well-made movie throughout, but one that manages to stick with you for a long time afterwards, a heist movie with a little more on its mind than most. It's smart, it's measured, and it knows what it wants to be - it is, in short, a damn fine movie, one that I'm sure will end up being talked about for a long time to come.

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