“Hell or High Water” is the best film you’ll see this year.
This isn’t hyperbole or a statement made lightly, especially given the fact that there’s still four months and an entire season of Academy Award candidates yet to be released.
Beautifully crafted and acted, the first major release film from director David Mackenzie stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who resort to robbing banks in sleepy West Texas towns while being pursued by a grizzled veteran Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges.
“Hell or High Water” is a funky combination of thriller and neo-Western ripped straight out of a different era. Were they alive today, “High Water” is a movie that Steve McQueen and/or James Dean might star in – a quintessential tale of antiheros running from the law for morally just reasons. “Hell or High Water” is “The Getaway” with a conscience; a western “Rebel Without A Cause.”
What Mackenzie hits audiences over the head with from the outset is Giles Nuttgens’ artistic, nuanced cinematography that paints the film’s West Texas landscape so perfectly. Nuttgens and Mackenzie masterfully use the natural lights and shadows of early sunrises and sunsets to mask the film’s slower, poignant moments, helping to keep audiences engaged in between tense action. Effectively shooting in low light situations is a difficult skill to master and Nuttgens does the best job of any cinematographer in 2016 of handling this challenge.
Pine has proven to be a very capable leading man especially in popcorn franchise films. But he has never been quite as elegant and layered with a performance as he is in “High Water.” His broken, weathered effort is award worthy as a man struggling to balance the death of his mother, a dying family ranch and two sons from a failed marriage. There’s just enough stoicism in his performance to balance the more manic turn from Foster that elevates the entire film beyond crime genre stereotypes.
At first glance, Foster doesn’t appear to be the ideal choice to play the demonstrative, devil-may-care older brother. The veteran character actor has waded in these waters many times before and often overacted with gimmicky caricatures. In “High Water,” Foster teeters right on the cusp of going too far with the part. but whether it’s Mackenzie holding him back or Foster finally playing with restraint, his performance is safely just on the edge of crazy without billowing over into complete madness. Foster’s innate chemistry with Pine in the film is undeniable and it’s in their kinship that the film truly shines.
Inevitably, Bridges’ performance in “High Water” will be compared to Tommy Lee Jones’ effort in the similar, yet much darker Coen Brothers film “No Country for Old Men.” The parts are different sides of the same coin, the aging Texas lawman out for one last ride. In “High Water,” Bridges does display a very effective “I’m too old for this” mentality, but it’s couple with an uniquely crude and albeit racist sense of humor that’s unexpectedly brilliant. There’s a great deal of levity in Bridges’ partnership with a younger Native American colleague that tracks quite nicely throughout the film. When looking back on Bridges’ career, “High Water” will ultimately represent one of his best performances in a long, storied filmography.
British director Mackenzie seems well at home shooting a film so entrenched in the desolate West Texas plains and his movie offers terrific, cutting insight to life in stagnant rural economies. Many of the sleepy cities portrayed in “Hell or High Water” feel like modern day ghost towns with the entire film playing out as if it were a Clint Eastwood western from the 1960s. Mackenzie does a masterful job of adapting screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s script, matching the tone of the pitch-perfect dialogue with visual cues and backgrounds that build layers of depth to the overall finished product.
Several months from now, critics and award voters will likely overlook this small, limited release independent western in favor of “showy”-er efforts from bigger names in biopics with acting performances from Pine and Bridges as well as Mackenzie’s directorial effort feeling like major snubs.
But it’s not an exaggeration to say that “Hell or High Water” is the best film of 2016, even with four months left in the year. It’s the single best piece of cinema that you could possibly watch in a theater right now and an absolute must see film.