Set in the picturesque, golden haze of small-town Texas, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water tells the story of two brothers who resort to crime in order to pay off the money they owe on their ranch, and therefore provide a better future for their family. While the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated, this film is anything but a simple watch. There is no clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within the film, which leads to its accomplishment in interweaving melancholy and drama with comedy and action. In many ways viewing Hell or High Water is akin to reading a short-story, it speaks for itself and does not require lengthy explanation of the premise at any point throughout; it simply is what it is.
The tone is initially lighthearted and comedic, with many jokes and quips along with brilliant characterization, such as the contrast between the two brothers—Toby (Chris Pine) is calm and controlled with no prior criminal record, whereas his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is prone to violence and barely able to stay out of prison. It is clear from the offset that the relationship between the brothers is highly sentimental despite their arguments and differences, yet the emotive power of Hell or High Water truly comes through in the second half when the brothers are forced to part. Tanner is willing to sacrifice anything for his brother, and Toby the same for his sons. This familial love is prevalent but not over-played and does not come across as sickly but instead the excellent acting from both Chris Pine and Ben Foster creates a sense of genuine affection. This is mirrored with the strange relationship between the two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The pair disagree on many topics and issues, yet a bond is gradually and subtly formed which makes the outcome all the more tragic.
The ultimate change in tone comes about halfway through the film, and is simultaneously unexpected and seamless. In a split-second it switches from a relatively tame but enjoyable tale of two novice brothers attempting small bank robberies being followed by two equally bumbling Texas Rangers, to a violent and bloody shoot-out. The pace quickens, and as a viewer it suddenly becomes apparent how invested in the characters we have become. While hints are laid as to the outcome of the plot, such as the brothers cutting corners on their plans and attempting to rob a bank far larger than they are capable of, it still feels deeply upsetting to watch their descent into a game of run and chase.
The true mastery of Hell or High Water is in its balance between style and substance. The cinematography is breathtaking, with extremely visually striking landscape shots entwined with skilled camera work and car tracking shots. Equally, the soundtrack further enhances Hell or High Water’s artistic qualities, with Nick Cave’s voice proving the audio equivalent of the stunning Texas landscape. This focus on the aesthetic could risk overtaking other aspects of the film such as the performances and plot, yet it doesn’t. Each different aspect of the film comes together perfectly to create a genre-mixing masterpiece. My only criticism is that the run-time feels a little short, at an hour and 42 minutes. While it does not feel like any part or scene is rushed, there is the nagging sense that there should have been another fifteen minutes of screen-time somewhere. Nevertheless, this film is so polished and beautiful that this does not take away from its success as a whole.