Oscar Review: Hell Or High Water

Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.

Today’s review is the neo-Western heist film, Hell or High Water.


Directed by David MacKenzie

Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Plot: A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas. (via IMDB)

I am a sucker for a good neo-Western. There’s something about the Western genre that lends itself so well to re-imagining and reinterpretation.What began as a fairly straight forward tale of good guys versus bad guys (“white hats” vs. “black hats”) has evolved over time into a much more complex relationship where the line between good and bad becomes grey. Hell or High Water is a movie of grey areas. A tale where the outlaws are doing their bad deeds for all the wrong reasons, and yet they are still far from being the “right thing”.

While the success of the film is ultimately due to the sum of its various small parts, special recognition must first be paid to the excellent script from Taylor Sheridan. Quickly becoming one of the most compelling writers in modern cinema, Sheridan works the same magic he did on Sicario, delivering a tight story without an ounce of fat on it. Aside from balancing the complex characters and their motivation, Sheridan does a effective job in giving us just enough information to be invested in the story without feeding us all the information too early.

Besides Sheridan, all the other key players are at the top of their game. Director David MacKenzie shoots the film beautifully, depicting the broken down towns as abandoned hellscapes where the unfortunate ones are left behind to fight over the scraps. He also proves to be a sure-hand with the handful of action sequences, eliciting more than a few shocking moments. The cast is also superb, with Chris Pine, a generally underrated actor, giving a solid stoic performance as the more reluctant outlaw. Ben Foster continues to be a fascinating screen presence making us sympathize for the fiercely loyal brother whose unpredictable nature leads to some of the darker moments in the film. And while Jeff Bridges isn’t reinventing the wheel with his tried-and-true cowboy schtick, he is entertaining as hell and slips in some moments of true brilliance. There’s a moment late in the film in which Bridge’s gives a reaction so genuine that he earns his Oscar nomination right then and there. The film is also peppered with some rich small characters which infuse the story with so much authenticity.

****** SPOILER WARNING******

As solid a film as this is, it does have a few weak areas. The film does a fine job balancing the good and bad we see on screen. There’s a compelling question as to whether the brothers were doing a noble thing and whether their actions were ultimately worthwhile. That question becomes a lot less hard to answer when Foster’s character starts killing people. I understand the final scene between Pine and Bridges is supposed to reckon with a lot of those grey areas, but it doesn’t feel fully earned since the movie never asks the audience to condemn their actions. Besides that, the relationship between Bridges and his partner (played by Gil Birmingham), while compelling, feels forced at times. But the biggest thing going against the movie is its lack of impact. While I enjoyed it thoroughly at the time, in the days after the viewing, it didn’t leave a lasting impression.

******END OF SPOILERS******

In the end, the film is an exceptional genre entry. It’s a true testament to the talents involved that the film works on every level of filmmaking, with an especially solid and fascinating screenplay. A compelling look at the modern outlaw and what pushes good people to desperate acts.



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