By Jacob Wampfler
As I sit here listening to the score for Hell or High Water, there is something eerily uncomfortable yet familiar about this beautiful film. Set in rural West Texas and focusing on two bank-robbing brothers, this is a story of those who have lost out on the proverbial and increasingly illusive American dream. It is a showcase for the ferocious love that is established by blood, but also displays the darkness of which we are capable in the name of that same love.
There are two major elements in play that make this film, quite frankly, a modern masterpiece. The camera and script work in a perfect union. Together, they create what can only be described as some of the most beautiful and rugged artwork I have witnessed in recent memory. If not for stark reality, I would almost say some shots were too blatant: “for sale” signs, realty company billboards, closed businesses, bars on windows and chains on door handles. However, these shots aren’t as blatant as they are intentional. This is the rural and small-town America that this nation’s people have come to know. As such, this film is all-too familiar. My parents owned one of those businesses that had to close its doors. I saw the “for sale” sign go up. I sat next to them as they mourned the loss of their dreams. And if robbing a bank would have helped them, I can’t truly say that option would have been off the table.
Taylor Sheridan’s script for this film is simply one of the best I have ever heard acted and spoken aloud. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how this character actor, best known for his portrayal of Deputy Chief of Police David Hale in Sons of Anarchy, has ascended to his current status as one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. His previous work with Sicario hinted at greatness. Following Hell or High Water, there is no question that Sheridan is legitimately an upper echelon player today. Perhaps my favorite line in the whole film, spoken by Jeff Bridges, epitomizes that greatness. While conducting an investigation in a bank, Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) sees a man wearing a business suit. “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house!” Marcus exclaims as he hurries over to talk to the banker. This script is pure gold, and Sheridan needs recognition for his poignant work on Hell or High Water.
Director David Mackenzie brings everything together, including the four stand-out lead actors and a heart-wrenching score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Chris Pine is the best he’s ever been in this film, and Ben Foster displays a powerhouse performance and an embodiment of vicious brotherly love. Honestly, Foster deserves awards attention for this performance but will likely get crowded out of any supporting actor nods. Likewise, the relationship between Marcus and Gil Birmingham’s Alberto Parker brings a welcome measure of levity to the film, while also serving as a foil for Toby and Tanner (Pine and Foster). The bank-robbing brothers and lawmen are two sides of the same coin, and the film portrays them as such without spoon-feeding the viewer any easy answers.
In the vein of Jeff Nichols’ work with Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, filmmakers would be wise to take Hell or High Water very seriously. These are the original stories that need to be told about the people of this country. These Steinbeckian tales are real ones. They are about real people with real struggles and real dreams. And often, the reality of our world is too much to bear alone. To quote another Jeff Bridges film, (Crazy Heart) “This ain’t no place for the weary kind.” Films like this one shed light on the weary – the bruised, battered, and broken – and help us realize our own darkness and need for redemption. Hell or High Water, now more than ever, is essential and relevant filmmaking. We need to start listening to its message.