David Mackenzie directs from a script by Taylor Sheridan; if the latter name sounds familiar to you, it’s because his name is all over the marketing for this movie, and for good reason. Last year, Sheridan’s first Hollywood script premiered to mass acclaim: Sicario. It’s a compliment to both movies to say that watching them back to back as a double feature would be a visual and thematic treat.
Hell or High Water finds Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father, and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), a recently released criminal, robbing banks in west Texas. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are given the assignment to catch them.
Chris Pine turns in the performance of his career up to this point. While his playful Kirk in the Star Trek franchise is charming and well realized, it’s amazing to see him embody this somber, serious role only a month after Star Trek Beyond‘s release. Pine digs deep into the material, playing melancholy without overacting it. And the camera loves him, often lingering on him a second or two longer than expected, letting certain anguish or guilt play across his face in subtle ways. Though it’s far too early for such a thought, I will nevertheless go out and say that Pine’s performance here really is Oscar-worthy. I hope he is not overlooked come awards season.
The rest of the cast is also stellar, although I don’t think that’s much of a surprise at this point from Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster. Bridges plays a character that could be cartoony but instead comes across as remarkably genuine. As the last act of the film transitions into a sharp character study, Bridges really unleashes a nuanced take on masculinity and old age.
Hell or High Water really shines in its dialogue. Sheridan’s screenplay is transcendent at times. Characters feel and sound authentic, embodying the spirit of west Texas. That they manage to sound so realistic while also sounding extremely literary is as remarkable as it is confounding.
The themes of the movie–family, legacy, land, and masculinity, among many others–all converge in its final scene, a terrific set piece that had me in awe. I walked away from the theater feeling that I had just been given a glimpse of something uncomfortably revealing–something naked and raw and powerful. Hell or High Water, with its Texas locations and momentous themes, is nothing short of beautiful. It’s a cinematic work of art.