"Hell or High Water" Review: Mistakes Theme for Narrative

By Harrison Miller (August 19, 2016)

The film depends on heavy handed suggestions (i.e. billboard advertisements of debt relief programs) and constant references to how bad the times are to make its point, all of which are very distracting to what the film’s strongest elements are: the relationship with the two brothers.

David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water is a well-made, well acted, and almost overly masculine modern western that seems to be constantly trying to distinguish itself as a well-thought examination of the effects of poverty and the 2008 financial crisis. Maybe saying that it's trying to "distinguish" itself as such is hyperbolic, because the film doesn't go out of its way to have a nuanced point of view of the subject, but simply relies on it to drive the narrative.

We follow Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), two brothers in West Texas who set out to commit a series of bank robberies so they can collect enough money to save their family farm.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water (2016)

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water (2016)

Regarding the use of the film's political point-of-view to drive the narrative, the device works. However, the film depends on heavy handed suggestions (i.e. billboard advertisements of debt relief programs) and constant references to how bad the times are to make its point, all of which are very distracting to what the film's strongest elements are: the relationship with the two brothers. I'm not suggesting that we needed more scenes of them bonding, because anymore than we get would be too much, but that these two characters have a genuinely interesting, dynamic relationship, and I would rather focus on them than blanket statements about the economy.

I don't mind these ideas about getting back at the banks, because they are why the story exists, but these themes are acknowledged too much and too broadly. The film opens with a long take, and the shot lingers on some graffiti on a wall for a moment that says, (paraphrasing) "I did 4 tours in Iraq and I didn't get a bailout," which is very obviously a reference to the bailouts that all major banks received when the economy crashed. That very first shot was enough for me to understand what the film was dealing with, and because of this, about 45% of the dialogue throughout the rest of this film was obsolete and even clumsy at times, always taking the opportunity to drive home a point, wagging its finger.

There is even a moment with Deputy Parker, the Half Native American, half Mexican partner of Jeff Bridges' Ranger Hamilton, who are hunting Tanner and Toby, when he notes (again, paraphrasing) that the white man took his ancestor's land, and now its being taken from the white man, referring to the banks. Statements like these are peppered throughout the film. Without most of these expository conversations, there wouldn't be a lot going on in the story, which makes me question its existence in the first place, considering that all the political dialogue seems stuffed in. My guess is that the filmmakers needed a "reason" to make this movie, rather than just making a compelling drama.

Hell or High Water is a fine movie with some very tense moments, but I wish it would embrace itself more as a thriller, instead of stopping itself to make political remarks. If the film was not as adept as it is at telling a story, having a sense of pacing and control over its tone-- although, the country music needle-drops were a bit much-- I would have much less respect for it. I just wish the writing could match the rest of the craft.

RATING: 2.5 out of 4.

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