“one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout, back in 1987” -T-Bone Waitress
When I first reviewed Sicario at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, a film I loved, I highlighted the work of first time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. I labelled him a “real discovery”, yet I didn’t rush to cinemas to confirm or disprove this when his next film, Hell or High Water, was released earlier this year. Despite having big stars like Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine in leading roles, it’s technically an indie film, one that’s become the highest grossing indie of 2016. I wish that I’d stuck to my guns and caught Hell or High Water in its theatrical run, before the expectations that the reviews and hype built up for it. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best films of the year, but it’s a solid effort at mounting a character study within a decent crime film.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers who go on a bank robbing spree in order to prevent the family ranch from being foreclosed on. Yes robbing banks to pay the bank after a quick trip to the Casino to launder the funds. Cute. Robbing banks is already a dangerous business, do it in a state where most people have conceal and carry licenses and you’re just begging for trouble. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play Texas Rangers hot on their trail. Of course Bridges’ Ranger is on the brink of retirement just a little too old for this shit. There’s a sort of dual bromance happening with with the cops and robbers, and while Bridges and Birmingham have some good moments together, the emphasis between those two is always kept on The Dude.
From the very first scene, with Chris Pine’s baby blues looking out from behind a ski mask, it’s clear that he’s too pretty for this role. You can try to make him look like a down and out normal guy by slapping a moustache and stubble on him, but he’ll still look like this. Baby blues aside, Pine gets the job done. Love him or hate him, Ben Foster deserves credit taking chances in his performances and adding pleasant surprises to a couple scenes. The man does crazy pretty well. Bridges is playing a sort of toned down Rooster Cogburn, a variation on the same role it seems he’s been playing since his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart. The three stars may overshadow Birmingham’s Texas Ranger, but it’s the colourful locals and day players who really steal the show and add flavour to the Texas setting, particularly the surly waitress at the T-Bone Cafe who takes your order by asking what don’t you want.
You can’t set a crime film in Texas without some influence from the Coen brothers, even if it’s only in the mind of the audience, and having Jeff Bridges there only strengthens the connections. While Hell or High water never reaches Coen levels of brilliance, it at least brushes it at times. You can hear Sheridan aspire to their level of dialogue and almost reach it in a few instances, particularly with the aforementioned bit players. The plot doesn’t have as many twists and turns or action as one may hope, but instead opts for a slower, meditative piece. Many will read the brother’s socioeconomic circumstances as reflecting the current state of the country, but I think it’s more universal than that. For some people, times have always been tough, and they always will be.
Apart from the screenwriter and cast, there were very few Yanks in key roles bringing this American tale to life. Brit David Mackenzie hopped across the pond for the first time to direct and brought with him cinematographer (and frequent Deepa Mehta collaborator) Giles Nuttgens to help give a nice outsiders’ perspective on Texas. The score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave doesn’t live up to their incredible work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it’s still a nice addition in a genre that often uses music as an afterthought.
While Hell or High Water demonstrates aptitude by pretty much all involved and has a satisfying, though somewhat predictable climax, it’s not required viewing by any stretch, but it’s not a waste of time either. It doesn’t have the grab-you-by-the-balls and hold tight thrills that Sicario did, it’s aiming for something more subtle than that, but remains relatively superficial.
Giles Nuttgens’ images of Texas (well, New Mexico as Texas) have a nice gloss on this Blu-ray and it’s clear the time and consideration taken with film’s look was respected in the transfer. The extra features are a little more robust than what we’ve come to expect from most Blu-ray releases of indie films, starting with a trio of featurettes. “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water” (13 mins), “Visualizing the Heart of America” (10 mins), “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water” (12 mins) amount to a pretty good behind the scenes look at the who, what and where of this production, but don’t go much deeper than that. A 30 minute Filmmaker Q&A has David Mackenzie and cast members Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham in conversation with Time magazine’s Sam Lansky following the film’s premiere at ArcLight cinemas in Hollywood. While it’s interesting to see how all these different personalities were levelled by the project, this still feel like every other Q&A you’ve ever seen, with plenty of praise and adulation going in every direction. Finally there’s a 2 minute featurette on the film’s Red Carpet Premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas that is superfluous following the other featurettes and Q&A.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
If you have a nice AV setup at home and pay close attention to the look and sound of movies then you probably want to seek out this HD Blu-ray, otherwise you can let Hell or High Water come to you in some other organic way.