A divorced dad (Chris Pine) and his ex-con (Ben Foster) brother take on a series of bank heists in order to save their family's ranch in West Texas, before a veteran Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) tracks them down.
Last year's Sicario proved that you could take a relatively straightforward crime thriller and turn it into a work of cinematic art. Denis Villeneuve's fantastic direction, coupled with a career-best performance by Emily Blunt, made for arguably the best film of 2015. At the centre of Sicario was Taylor Sheridan, who penned the screenplay. It's hard to think of a screenwriter with two produced screenplays that's had done so well in rapid succession, as Hell Or High Water will go down as one of the best films of 2016. The film opens on Chris Pine and Ben Foster, two down-on-their-luck Texans who are in the midst of a daring bank heist. Neither one of them is terribly experienced and the whole thing is poorly staged, but it comes off working. The story develops that Pine and Foster are trying to raise enough funds to buy back their family ranch before its foreclosure and, in doing so, secure the future for Pine's two sons. Because of the relatively small amounts of money that are being stolen, Jeff Bridges' near-retired Texas Ranger and his companion, Gil Birmingham, are sent down to the rural, sh*t-kicker towns to hunt them.
Like Sicario, the plot is quite straightforward and doesn't need to oversell or complicate the situation any further. Instead, it allows itself to breathe meaning and subtext into individual scenes and, as it goes, the plot is just framing for something much bigger. Hell Or High Water is about the theft of land and people's lives from forces larger than their own. While in can be a little on the nose in places, it's done with such intelligence and grace that it's truly breathtaking. The film has more in common with True Grit than anything else; playing out as a modern Western with heist elements, but really being a deep morality play with fantastic performances and gorgeous cinematography.
Chris Pine truly is a revelation here, bringing a magnetism and screen presence that he's never displayed before. Although his natural good looks often pitch him as the charismatic leader, here he shows a huge amount of depth and there's a sense that the character is truly wounded and desperate, but with a deep sense of morality. Playing the soft-spoken but hard-edged man to Ben Foster's wilder, freer, the interplay between them works completely. Foster gives some much needed wit against Pine's straightness, and the script gives more than a few moments for some black humour. Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, lends his gravitas and comes off with that same folksy wisdom and charm that he used in the aforementioned True Grit. His colleague, Gil Birmingham, chuckles at his good-natured ribbing and, in one scene, points out the true nature of the story - that America is a conquered land and the current way of life is dying. The film is replete with references to this fact, with one particular scene showing cowboys complaining to Bridges' character about the nature of their work in the twenty-first century.
David Mackenzie, who previously directed the excellent Starred Up with Jack O'Connell, allows the camera to drink all the colours - or lack thereof - in West Texas. The camera lingers over small details and frequently uses billboards for cheap loans and debt services to tie scenes together. Of course, this is an heist thriller on the surface and these scenes are handled exceptionally well. Correctly eschewing shaky-cam and fast editing, Mackenzie allows the scene to flow naturally and without cuts and the heists are over so quickly that it almost feels like it's shot in real time. Where the film truly stands out is in the quieter moments between Pine and Foster and Bridges and Bermingham. There's a gentleness and stillness to these scenes that makes the rush of adrenaline all the more potent and grounds and develops the characters in a natural way. We'd believe there's a Texas Ranger out there like Jeff Bridges and you could empathise with Pine and Foster's plight.
As mentioned, Taylor Sheridan knows that a straightforward, unobtrusive plot can allow him to focus on wider issues. As with Sicario and its themes of American interventionism, the themes are that of a dying land and a conquered people. Foster's character refers to himself as a Commanche, a Lord of the Plains and an enemy to all. Gil Bermingham's Texas Ranger, himself of Commanche ancestry, references how his people were driven off the land and so to will the current generation by banks and governments. That sense of anguish is re-enforced in various scenes when Pine's character talks to a lawyer who is in on his scheme. The lawyer even references the fact that he's stealing the bank's money to pay back their loan, noting the irony of it all with a laugh.
Hell Or High Water acts as a brilliant companion piece to Sicario and stands on its own right as a taut, brilliantly-realised morality play dressed up as a heist thriller with Western elements. Easily one of the best films of the year.