I’d been looking forward to Hell or High Water hitting iTunes since it came out – it got great reviews, and my in-laws actually went to the theater to see it. (These are the same in-laws who laughed their way through The Witch, though, so I’m not sure how well our tastes align these days.) Hell or High Water doesn’t disappoint in that it’s a solid crime drama. If anything, it’s a little too solid.
Director David Mackenzie – whose work I was really excited about after reading about Starred Up – and DOP Giles Nuttgens – rising above his earlier work on Battlefield Earth (!) – capture the bleached, bleak feel of West Texas (which once took me three days to drive through). Mackenzie even pulls off an atmospheric oner to open the film, following a car around a deserted bank parking lot in tighter and tighter circles until the robbers waylay a teller on her way in. Likewise, proving that his script for Sicario was no fluke, writer Taylor Sheridan delivers a second script focused on the gray zone where law and crime intersect. At times these three craft a great scene, as in one where an crotchety old timer with a load of pennies demonstrates the perils of robbing banks in an open carry state. They’re helped by solid performances from the three leads. Ben Foster is as good as ever at playing a dangerous, slightly unhinged tough, and although I’ve never taken Chris Pine seriously, he’s fine here. Jeff Bridges steals the show as Texas Ranger who appears to be the slightly toned-down descendant of his Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit.
Hell or High Water has a theme too – it basically asks if there’s a difference between the men robbing the bank and the men who work at the bank and rob the poor people of West Texas. It’s a theme I’m sympathetic to, but here Sheridan lays it on a little thick (as my wife said, this film has a theme and it’s not afraid to let you know what it is). Do we really need to hear a farmer ask if the bank that’s been robbed is “the one that’s been robbing me for 30 years”? While some of its dialogue is reminiscent of the Coens’ best work (the old timer at the bank reminded me instantly of the old timer in Raising Arizona – “Mean to say, if’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop”), too often it simply lays out its themes earnestly and repeatedly. As I said, they’re themes I’m sympathetic to, but after a while it feels a little lazy.
Films like Friday Night Lights do a better job of capturing the desperation of life in West Texas, and No Country for Old Men the futility of trying find meaning in being a good man among bad men. In the hands a subtler writer or another director, Hell or High Water might have joined them as a powerful portrait of modern America, or at least modern West Texas. Instead, what should be undertone is usually overtone.