“Hell or High Water” is a furious yet mellow American masterpiece

As you all know by now, I love being surprised by a movie I had absolutely no expectations for going into. Last week, I saw something that just blew me away. This week, I can turn you all on to it, as it’s opening. The flick is called Hell or High Water and is just fantastic. Not only do I think it’s better than Sicario, which was a top notch outing last year and also written by scribe Taylor Sheridan, but I’d go so far as to say I prefer it to No Country for Old Man, which is a cinematic cousin of sorts. Equally mellow and raging at the state of the world, this is more than just a crime drama. It’s a character study about the modern cowboy, and much more. I out and out loved it, as you’ll see below.

The film tells the tale of divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his convict brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), as they execute a plan to save their family’s farm in West Texas. The plot involves robbing the branch of banks that is taking their land and using the money to pay off the back loans, mortgages, etc. Toby is an honest man, but Tanner is a no good ex con, so it takes a bit for their robberies to smooth out, but soon they’ve got a few successes under their belt, something that the residents of the various towns take notice of, not necessarily in a negative way. Eventually, they wind up getting the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is about to hit mandatory retirement age, so this is his last rodeo and he wants to make it last. It’s clearly setting up for a showdown, but how it all goes about this is what sets it apart. David Mackenzie directs Sheridan’s script, while the supporting cast includes Dale Dickey, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, and more. The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, while the cinematography is done by Giles Nuttgens.

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This is a nearly perfect bit of cinema. I was blown away by the anger on display, and how wonderfully subtle it gets handled. On the one hand, it works as a just brilliant crime drama, but on the other, it’s a character study as much about middle class Texans as the three main characters. Bridges, Foster, and Pine are at their best, essaying full formed characters who you immediately become fascinated by. I don’t want to say too much about what happens, but they all vie for your allegiance in terrific and unexpected ways. Plus, it has one of the best endings of the year so far. It’s just magnificent stuff, all around.

Awards wise, it remains to be seen if Hell or High Water can gain any traction, but it certainly deserves some consideration. In a perfect world, it would contend in Best Picture, Best Director (for Mackenzie), Best Actor (for Pine), Best Supporting Actor (for Bridges and Foster), Best Original Screenplay (for Sheridan), Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. Had Bridges not already won an Oscar, I suspect he would have been a sentimental favorite here in Supporting Actor, but that’s probably not the case now. It might wind up being Original Screenplay or bust here, but I’ll cross my fingers that it’s not lost in the shuffle when the precursors begin.

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In the end, this is one of the weekend’s very best bets, bar none. Hell or High Water is perhaps my favorite movie of the year, no worse than top three status, so that should tell you just how good it is. If you’re a fan of Bridges, Foster, or Pine, you’ll really appreciate seeing them do something new. This is a must see folks, plain and simple, and a film that establishes Sheridan as one of the most interesting new writers in the business. It’ll be branching out over the next few weeks and you should make it your business not to miss it. You can thank me later…

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Be sure to check to check out Hell or High Water, in theaters on a limited basis starting Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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