By: Muneeb Arshid
I know, I know, how dare I take away Tom Hanks‘ thunder while he’s busy portraying the latest American civilian hero. I promise that review will come this weekend. However, no disrespect to Mr Hanks, but I doubt his new film, Sully, will actually come close to the intensely comedic, yet thrilling, Hell or High Water.
Yes, I know, I just described the film as being intense, but also comedic, which is kind of contradictory, yet is a description that makes the most sense. You could also add in quite depressing, which would also work to describe what the film is all about. Hell or High Water is the story of unfortunate circumstances, following the lives of two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard. Both have differing unfortunate circumstances, the former having just been released from jail, while the latter is short of money to pay his child support and the mortgage on his deceased mother’s foreclosed home. However, being brothers and with their situations, it brings them together to rob local banks in West Texas. What film does so well, and you will find out that it does a lot well, is not to explain the economic situation of the area. Yes, we find out later in the film, through interactions of the characters, why the two leads are robbing banks, but the cause is never explained. Instead, we are given visual cues and reminders about the economic downturn of the area, that has caused jobs to be lost and allows us to make our own assumption whether or not what they are doing can be considered a good decision. That’s if you can legitimately find a way to say that robbing banks is ever good.
I did say that this was a thriller, so in a film with two people robbing banks, there needs to be some sort of people chasing these robbers. “Chasing” I will put in air quotes, as Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) do spend most of the movie methodically plotting (sitting) out a way to catch the thieves red-handed. Jeff Bridges, puts in such a Jeff Bridges performance, that you’re left sitting there in wonderment at what you’ve just seen. Ranger Hamilton is about three weeks away from retirement when he decides to take on this assignment, an assignment he thinks will be open and shut in a few days and he can then peacefully enjoy his retirement.
There is a sort of simplicity to the film that it is relying on to work successfully, not only in terms of the characters but also the story. It’s a film that has only the amount of characters that could be properly handled, to make sure that everyone’s circumstances are logically presented but also allowing the film to flesh out each and every character based on their situation and personalities. Chris Pine puts in the performance of a lifetime, but one that we’ve been expecting for quite a while. Comparisons can be made to his role in Z for Zachariah in terms of the grunginess of the role. He plays the far more intelligent brother, yet is slightly aware and cautious of the pitfalls of robbing banks while Ben Foster plays the reckless, “bad boy” big brother. There is an implied distrust and animosity between the brothers, but as their relationship is further fleshed out, and they continue on their “adventure”, it does bring them closer together and show that there is love and affection between the two, even though their individual motivations and reasoning for the robbing might be completely opposite. However, overshadowing the two leads is the comedically, wonky performance by Jeff Bridges. You honestly still can’t make out what he’s saying, but at least, this time, he can disguise his disgruntled voice as just being from West Texas, which wasn’t the case in “classics” like R.I.P.D. and Seventh Son.
The simplicity extends to the story as well, as it isn’t head-turning or complicated, yet is able to follow through on the story presented as it is. Director David MacKenzie and more importantly, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan don’t feel the need to add in any sort of plot twist in the middle of the film, we are presented with these two brothers robbing banks for a certain reason, and Hell or High Water works its way towards the resolution of their conundrum. It’s odd why many directors feel the need that more is the way to go, when a simple, yet, perfectly crafted film, can do, well, a perfect job. But I guess it’s that perfecting the use of simplistic storytelling which can become the problem.
While we’re speaking of “perfect”, why don’t we go ahead and give a standing ovation to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on the absolute spot on score for this film. Take a bow good sirs, you have accomplished something that only matches that opening scene in the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones. Being set in Texas, we get a mixture of rock and country music which is on par for the setting but what sets this film apart is its use of thematic instrumentals. Most notably, the use of violins, whenever the visual cues were being directed towards the signs of despair and recession in the city. It presents a haunting feeling that is reminiscent of that finale of GoT, of impending doom, in this case, being that the doom has already occurred. There were also two scenes where the duo used sound very well, one in the final bank robbery scene, and two during the road stop sequence. I won’t spoil the sequences per say, however, both scenes use the score, or more accurately, the sudden removal of the score, to not only build up tension but also allow the sound effects and facial expressions to do the talking. They are immensely suspenseful sequences, due in most part to the spot on sound editing.
If there is one niggle I have with the film, and it’s a teeny, tiny one, is that the film could’ve ended slightly earlier than it actually does. However, unlike other “non-endings”, the elongation of the film allows just enough material to leave you thinking about what might have happened after the credits rolled, without actually showing it to us. This will not cause it to lose its coveted perfect grade, however. It is a relief to be able to watch such a quality film like this after such an abysmal summer film season. Here’s hoping, this is just a sign of the quality of the upcoming Oscar run of movies.
Stay tuned for an announcement about our coverage from the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), which starts September 29th.
We, the TFL team, are so proud to give Hell or High Water a grade of A+ (9.5/10).