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Hell or High Water Movie Review (Spoiler Free)

An amalgamation of The Big Short & True Grit! Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water surprises with a smart story in this modern western.

Genre: Drama / Thriller / Western

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, John Paul Howard, Christopher W. Garcia, Katy Mixon & Dale Dickey.

Run Time: 102 min.

US Release: 26 August 2016

UK Release: 09 September 2016

German Release: 12 January 2017

This is my biggest positive surprise of January so far. Hell or High Water did debut everywhere across the globe last year except for Germany but it is finally out here as well, and boy was I looking forward to seeing this heist flick. I tried skipping all reviews and news about this modern western to go and experience it without having been influenced but didn’t manage to stay away from the media completely, so when I went in to see it I was a little scared that my high expectations, which did build up from reading all the positive critiques, might hurt my experience. It didn’t and I was blown away by the premise and execution of this film because it was fantastic!

So what is Hell or High Water about? The story revolves around the two brothers Tobey Howard (Pine) and Tanner Howard (Foster), who for reasons I won’t spoil, decide to go on a morning robbery spree of Texas Midland Banks. Tanner is the older of the two siblings and has been in and out of prison his whole life. Tobey, on the other hand, seems to be the more calm of the two. Both are pursued by the ageing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham).

The main plot is more of a character piece, studying the two brothers and their very personal justifications for robbing the banks. It also is a personality study of retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton and his struggle to let go, while being on the hunt for the two siblings with his Native American partner Alberto. The real story, though, is found in the hidden subplot, which is all about how the financial crash of 2008 affected smaller US towns and their citizens in the long run. This was a message I was impressed to find in a western-heist movie because this type of genre doesn’t usually produce thought-provoking flicks of this calibre.

The story is purposely slow-paced to flesh out the characters better and driven by the very intriguing dialogues between the personas, giving the narrative more weight and a deeper meaning. Granted, the actors do talk in a thick southern accent and Jeff Bridges used his slurring mannerisms from True Grit, both factors that made it hard to understand what the people were saying. The dialogue handled a lot of the morality issues and included a lot of cynicism, mostly about how history seems to repeat itself.

This is yet again a picture that kept its cast limited for a cause and it paid off well. Chris Pine plays the role of Toby Howard and he gave a remarkable rendition of his character. Tobey is the younger of the two Howard siblings, and contrary to Tanner, he is a well-mannered intelligent young man who seems to only use violence if he sees no other way out of a situation. His chemistry with Ben Foster was fantastic; both seemed to genuinely care for each other while at the same time despising the fact that they are stuck together and needing to rely on each other. Ben Foster was also incredibly great as Toby’s older brother Tanner. He radiated aggression and anger and I loved the way his character looked out for his younger sibling even though they didn’t go along well for most of the film.

What is there to say about Jeff Bridges that hasn’t been mentioned multiple times by others? This guy is a legend and he showed his acting talent once again with this western. He was simply overwhelming as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, an elderly man of law about to retire, taking on this last case with his Native American partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. Marcus teases and insults Alberto a lot about his heritage, yet he does it because he cares for him and thus tries to distance himself emotionally from him.

Director of cinematography Giles Nuttgens created a stunning-looking movie, by deliberately adding long-taken shots that were supposed to help tell the story and flesh out the characters. These long shots were meshed with beautiful panoramic scenes of West Texas, making me feel as if I were right in the middle of the happening; I nearly was able to taste and smell the sand and dirt of the settings. Mackenzie smartly integrated signs and billboards of bank loans, insurances and eviction notices, in the background of scenes to magnify his message of financial ruin that plagues some of the smaller towns in the southern US. This is a vital theme of the film and benefits the plot greatly.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compile the soundtrack to Hell or High Water, which combines slow dramatic piano and violin compositions with a few country songs. Both genres add to the overall experience of the movie. While the slow but strong classical pieces underline the emotional statuses of the different characters and their relationships with one another, the country music emphasizes the setting it takes place.


Verdict: This modern western was a surprise hit for me, especially since it debuted in Germany early this January. The theme is intriguing and the script and dialogues were written extremely well by Taylor Sheridan, giving the film a depth I didn’t expect it to have. The story itself was executed brilliantly, by focusing on character development and dialogues rather than mindless action. That is not to say that this movie doesn’t have thrilling moments full of explosions, but it is kept to a limit. Ben Foster and Chris Pine were amazing as the Howard brothers, as well as having beautiful chemistry, and Jeff Bridges was once again a badass on film. The cinematography contained handsomely looking long shots and panoramic segments, while the mashup of classical music and country songs benefited the scenery and the emotional atmosphere. I will give Hello or High Water a 9.0 out of 10 and recommend you to go watch this movie in theatres.

Look out for my review of The Great Wall tomorrow and as always, thank you for reading!


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