In 2016, between the agonizingly long runtimes of summer blockbusters and the agonizingly long runtimes of the awards season movies of November and December, was Hell or High Water–a film thrilling enough to be mixed in with the former and finely tuned enough to be in contention with the latter. However, it refreshingly weighs in at a hour and 42 minutes, almost gawking in the face of its contemporaries on either side.
It’s a story about two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who are robbing banks in order to save their deceased mother’s ranch in West Texas. Out of the two, Pine’s character has a much better head on his shoulders. He has a solid grasp of their purpose and is extremely careful with every move they make. On the other hand, Foster’s character is an ex-con who seems to be getting more thrill out of committing these crimes, not even needing much of a motivation to begin with. He’s a real live wire. An unpredictable sort who keeps us on edge knowing he’s going to do something stupid, ruining the plans for the both of them.
Opposite of the two is Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is solidly on their trail the whole time, trying to decipher their every move. This is his last job before retirement, so, in true Jeff Bridges fashion, he does everything with a curmudgeonly attitude.
Hell or High Water holds our attention well, partly due to the brief runtime, but it’s entertaining too. The dialogue is fresh and the characters are intriguing.
The main problem? Most of us can’t relate. We want to, but find ourselves having a hard time becoming invested in the characters. Backed by the anti-bank theme, the film wants to be deep and relatable, but it comes up a little short, distancing itself too much.
Not to say the movie isn’t entertaining, because it really is. However, the whole thing has a “why do I care?” quality. It tries to say something important, but just doesn’t not well enough.
And maybe that’s the point. To tell a story without polemics. It succeeds, but still without relatable characters. They have well-defined identities, but just not quite enough to evoke a large sum of empathy. While this film gets our hearts racing, it won’t really make us emotional. We will leave the theater and move on to the next thing in our lives.
Hell or High Water is a high-action Western, but has a real indie feel, well-tailored and almost too well-written that it distances itself from the audience, slightly failing to satisfy us emotionally.
I commend the movie on not becoming some big, drawn-out, self-aggrandizing story. And as much as it’s entertaining, it’s really well done too. Resting perfectly in that middle ground between blockbuster and awards-movie. But that middle ground just doesn’t get us to either side sufficiently enough. We’ve seen that with films before, and this won’t be the last time.
However, as far as modern Westerns go, Hell or High Water is one of the better ones. Understanding the genre without having to time travel to get the job done. There aren’t any contrived twists, but the story is gripping from start to finish–really the most important thing in a medium that was invented to entertain.