Movie Review: ‘Hell or High Water’

Let me begin by saying that I love Hollywood’s new trend of making short, straightforward movies. You might be thinking, “What?! Making simple movies is not a new concept!” Are you sure? For many years, I have not seen a film shorter than two hours in length. A story should have a beginning, middle and end, yet filmmakers have been set on giving that beginning its own beginning, middle and end, and so on. 

Hell or High Water proved that a good–no, excellent–film is possible in 102 minutes. 

The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers who rob a chain of local Texas banks with the intent of using that money to pay back extensive loans they owe that same bank. The robberies aren’t elaborate, and avoid using actual violence with threats. A pair of policemen, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, are sent to track down these brothers as one last hurrah before Bridges’ character retires.

The beauty in this film lies in the juxtaposition of the two pairs’ relationships. Bridges and Birmingham play partners who have worked together for years and have a constant back and forth, with an underlying love and respect for one another. On the other hand, Pine and Foster play brothers who haven’t seen each other in years (due to Foster’s character having been in prison for killing their father in self defense) yet trust each other with their lives.  

While we have a traditional dichotomy of criminal and detective, there is no real hero or villain in this story. They are all likable; they are all the good guys. We grow to support them in their endeavors, cry at their sacrifices, feel pride at their accomplishments and laugh at their joy. We want a happy ending. 

Subtlety is key in this film. It’s quiet, with just enough dialogue to get the story across, but a little more digging needed to get to the point. We know what the brothers are doing, and how they are doing it, but we need to understand who they are to know why it is important. 

Even with the intellectual aspect, this film was funny! It was one of the first times in years that a potential Oscar movie had jokes that didn’t invalidate it as a good story. I laughed as much as I cried. Comedy is in the timing, even when the time happens to be in the middle of a Western drama. 

My favorite part of the entire film is the fact that we don’t even hear the brothers’ names until the last twenty minutes of the film, yet that never occurred to me throughout the entire thing. Instead of relying on the character’s identities to carry the story, it is fueled entirely by their relationship. It would have made no difference if we had never learned their names. This isn’t some Fight Club situation where the narrator’s lack of identity is important, but the lack of names shows how meaningless that form of identity is to the whole story. The focus is on what they mean to each other, not what they mean to themselves.

Visually, the film was stunning. Hell or High Water should definitely win Best Cinematography at the Oscars. The film features a lot of prolonged shots in which the audience gets to see the same view for around three to five seconds. This tests the patience of many filmgoers who are used to quick cuts and fast-paced action. 

There was repetition of one shot in particular. Whenever two characters were in a car, we would get a view of the whole front seat, and watch the two of them talking. No fancy shots, no cutaways to one face then the other. It was like we were sitting in front of them watching them talk. Yet it all worked! 

There’s already a lot of Oscar buzz for this film. When it was released, it was given great reviews right off the bat. Critics are saying that Jeff Bridges should for sure get the nomination. I think that it could go to Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster. If Foster receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination, he, and the film, could redefine the category as being something that doesn’t require a certain type of film or character to warrant praise. 

Hell or High Water has already redefined so many aspects of film and storytelling this year. Why not let it get awarded for doing so?