Part outlaw Western, part crime caper, part road movie, part buddy comedy, Hell or High Water is a surprising and endlessly endearing piece of genre filmmaking. It takes a wafer thin story, and with a smart screenplay, sharply defined emotional core, and several tour de force performances turns it into one of the most satisfying American films of the year. The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, which won the 2012 Black List for the best unproduced screenplay, has been transformed into something that transcends the sum of its parts.
The story concerns brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively), who when the film begins are in the middle of committing a string of peculiar bank robberies around the Texas-Oklahoma border. They only steal small bills, straight from the teller drawers, getting away with a few thousand from each branch. On their trail is a pair of cops, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), and as the two duos glide toward their inevitable collision, it becomes clear that, in this story, morality and the law are not one and the same thing.
The setting of this film is not the Grand Old South; It's a series of ghost towns laid waste by the encroachment of big business and big banks, and that is where the thrill lies. Black-and-white morality has been dispensed with in favour of grey areas, through which our beleaguered heroes either rampage or stumble. Further helping the brainy ambiguity of the screenplay to hit home is a gorgeous soundtrack by Australian music icons Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that contrasts with the artificiality of the blaring country-rock that often crops up alongside it.
Hell or High Water is comparable to other critically acclaimed neo-Westerns like the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men in that it twists and subverts tropes in fascinating and sometimes playful ways. Unlike that film, though, it has a sometimes breezy tone, that despite being at odds with the more serious, heartfelt parts of the story, never sits awkwardly alongside them. Part of this is due to the performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster, particularly the latter. Tanner is a complex character - his protectiveness manifests as self-destructiveness - but in Foster's hands he is never anything but believable. Jeff Bridges also turns in a career-best performance, and his rapport with Gil Birmingham is spectacular.
Further surprises crop up in the film's examination of the dynamics of race, friendship and family. Though surface-level, these themes add depth to what is at heart a simple story of familial or fraternal duty. Part of what makes Hell or High Water so exciting is that it proves that action and intelligence in the cinema do not have to be mutually exclusive. Skipping over any deep analysis of what the film gets so right just leaves the stark fact that Hell or High Water is a charming and endlessly enjoyable must-see film.
Hell or High Water Opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 27th.