“I have to wonder if the praise only comes from people reminiscing about No Country for Old Men.”
One of the most talked about films this past Oscar season was Hell or High Water. Pretty much every single person who talked about movies talked about how great Hell or High Water was and how you should go and see it immediately. This hype stuck with me through all of this time and I finally got the opportunity to watch Hell or High Water; unfortunately all of that hype might have ruined it for me. Hell or High Water is a film about two brothers, Toby and Tanner, who go on a bank robbing spree in Texas. The film follows their story, but also the story of almost retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton who will stop at nothing to bring these men to justice. I would like to explain what the movie is about in greater detail, but there are a few problems with me doing so. First of all, it would spoil the movie. I’m not in the business of spoiling movies so that’s off the table. The second issue is pretty simple as well: there really isn’t much more to Hell or High Water.
Right off the bat let’s discuss how good this movie was said to be, and how good it actually was. Reviewing (well, “reviewing”) movies is tough because you have to remove as much bias as you can from your assessment of any and all movies. You want to try and see the movie as many other people will see the movie, to give the most relatable view for the greatest number of people. This is usually rather easy for me (although I can never remove all bias), but in the case of Hell or High Water all of those preconceived notions just wouldn’t go away. I kept hearing everyone with a YouTube channel in my head saying things like: “This is the greatest movie of the year”, and ”You have to go and see this movie”. These constant praises that were making their rounds in my mind set the movie up to be something much greater than it actually is. Now don’t get me wrong I liked the movie, but I would say that 2016 had much better movies released than Hell or High Water. Hell or High Water presents to us the bones of a really good story. Two brothers, robbing their way across Texas for reasons that we are very curious to discover. A Texas Ranger who is at his wits end, trying to make it to his retirement while also dealing with his “new school” partner. All of this is very interesting at its core, but it was never really explored in the movie. People will say that Hell or High Water is very much a character study film, and I would agree. But the problem is that the characters we are shown don’t get studied at all. We get minor hints of a past that has shaped these characters into what they are today, but soon all of that is forgotten with glimpses of another character’s past that also doesn’t quite get told. What the movie boils down to in a hyperbolic sense is two quiet brothers and a shitload of racist jokes. I understand that there is more to it if you want to look for it, but on the surface that’s what we are given.
Some of this lack of depth comes down to the performances in the film, or at least I believe it does. Now the performances in Hell or High Water are serviceable, but they are nowhere near amazing. You have Chris Pine playing Toby, or as I like to call him “quiet brother no. 1”. He’s the sweet brother, but we really don’t get a lot out of him because he is very reserved in displaying his emotions. We then have Ben Foster playing Tanner (“quiet bother no. 2”). Tanner is the crazier of the two, but still he hides his emotions behind silence. Now I know some people are probably thinking to themselves that movies are supposed to show you things, not tell you things. I agree with that sentiment, but the performances in Hell or High Water did neither, and that’s the problem. You also have Jeff Bridges who plays a very generic disgruntled cop who cracks racist jokes at every turn, and who only gets a bit of depth at the very end of the film. You also have Gil Birmingham who plays the man at the end of all of those racist jokes, and honestly his character was the most interesting to me. I will admit that I wish, much like with all other characters, he got a chance to actually do something, but as it stands he was the highlight of the film in my opinion. Unfortunately what a lot of Hell or High Water boils down to is depressing shots of Texas with sad music playing in the background. Sure the music changes styles every once in a while (either a country song or an instrumental arrangement) but that doesn’t stop a few large parts of this movie from feeling like a fucking music video. I understand what the goal was, and honestly it did set the tone for the film really well, but in my opinion it was just too much. I really did like the look of the film (both direction and colour grading) because it gave the film this feeling of warmth while also remaining very bleak. I also appreciated how brutal the film got toward the end. This insanely graphic violence acted as a nice full stop to all of the depressing shit that we had been seeing the entire movie.
Overall Hell or High Water was alright, but definitely not as good as I was led to believe. I might have been hard on the movie because of the praise, or maybe it just wasn’t my thing, but either way I thought it was far from amazing. I have to wonder if the praise only comes from people reminiscing about No Country for Old Men.
I give Hell or High Water a B