Hell or High Water feels more like a book than a film, and I mean that as a huge compliment. For rather than being your run-of-the-mill tale of bank robbery and cat-and-mouse chase, this complex drama unfolds as a series of tableaus which offer very genuine character exploration through authentic conversations.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine play brothers Tanner and Toby Howard. They’re farm boys, Tanner a loose cannon fresh out of the pen and Toby a more dependable (but nonetheless dangerous) farm hand. Their mother is dead and now they need to steal some cash to buy her property from the bank before the bank foreclose and steal it out from under them. So sets the scene.
But like I said at the top it’s not just about the action, it’s much more focused on getting to the core of the people and why they do what they do. That includes Jeff Bridges’ almost-retired lawman Marcus Hamilton and his long suffering partner Alberto; the pair charged with bringing in the Tanner brothers, and a fantastic double-act to boot. They’re always at each other, plenty of banter flying around the cab of their cruiser. Whilst that may seem typical of an oddly matched pair of detectives, in this case it feels unique.
Hamilton is old-school; loose with the racist jokes and seemingly all bluster, but clearly a man of honour, fierce loyalty and dogged determination to complete the job. Alberto wears a mask of distaste, but is drenched in respect for his partner. He is the brow-beaten deputy who wouldn’t have it any other way (it made me think about the stories of John Wayne’s tumultuous relationship with John Ford). We learn all this from watching them interact through dialogue heavy scenes which, at the time, seem not to be adding much to the plot, when in fact they are laying every necessary foundation.
The same is true of Pine and Foster’s scenes together. We don’t get faced with exposition at all. In fact the film opens with the first bank robbery, thrusting us in without warning, placing maximum responsibility on our shoulders to piece the story together. We see them act and interact with each other and their surroundings in a truly authentic way, and this in turn allows the events of the story more resonance. It’s a true commitment to a show-don’t-tell mentality, and in the end that makes the movie a great deal more impactful.
Of course this all relies on stunning performances across the board, and that’s precisely what you get. Chris Pine is understated enough that when he explodes he brings genuine awe, Jeff Bridges turns in one of his best scenery chewing roles, and Ben Foster…well he’s just on another level here. For me he’s always been someone who showed massive potential but always seemed to lack the right opportunity, and this is the type of role he should be offered in abundance. He is fierce, fearless, wreathed in hidden tragedy. It’s a masterclass in what acting should be, and I’d be very shocked if he’s not given some sort of nod come awards season.
What’s really great about a character portrait such as this, is that you realise how little a high-concept story matters. What’s crucial in modern cinema are three-dimensional characters whose actions and words correlate to what we know about them as people. They are inherently human, making the dangers they face seem that much more threatening.
A definite highlight of 2016.