Hell or Highwater Review: No Country for Captain Kirk
Amidst the big summer tent poles and somewhat out-of-place horror movies, it seems that a low-budget, high talent modern western has snuck into theaters to some very positive buzz. Written by Taylor Sheridan – who wrote last year’s heavy hitting thriller Sicario – and directed by David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water follows the story of two brothers from West Texas who go on a bank robbing spree to save their mother’s ranch from foreclosure while being hunted by a Texas Ranger on the edge of retirement.
It’s a story that is far from original, and could very well be pulled from the pages of a Zane Grey novel, were the setting just a mere hundred fifty years ago. But Sheridan’s writing creates characters that feel real, not as though they are trying to fit archetypes of storytelling. And the way he begins the film is perfect – with the first robbery. No first act of set up, and then decision to become outlaws. We are dropped into the middle of the action from the get go and then given the necessary details for what’s going on in later dialogue that is just minimalistic enough to allow you to put the pieces together without feeling like exposition. His writing is taut, tense, and, surprisingly, full of heart. There were quite a few times I found myself laughing my ass off at some piece of unexpected dialogue. In a tense film of cops and robbers, it was welcome levity that made the film that much more enjoyable.
David Mackenzie deftly paces this film, allowing the story to ease into the next big moment. Taking the time with his characters and shying away from the overblown shootouts that are increasingly the norm. That’s not to say I don’t like that style of action – I do! But a toned down, restrained and slightly more realistic approach is a breath of fresh air. The cinematographer on the project, Giles Nuttgens, frames the rolling plains and windswept skies of New Mexico beautifully as the stand in location for West Texas. Wide shots and long takes allow the audience to fully take in what’s on-screen, whether it’s the landscape or the actors – which is, again, a breath of fresh air during a time when most action and thriller films are filled with quick cuts and shaky cam.
Chris Pine plays younger brother Toby Howard to Ben Foster’s older – and more wild – Tanner. These two play off each other perfectly as siblings. And after the horribly weird phone-in performance by Foster in Warcraft earlier this year, it’s nice to see him in a role that you can see he is having fun with. Jeff Bridges (AKA/ The Dude) plays almost retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He plays it with an air that’s a bit reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones’ own about to retire sheriff No Country for Old Men. He also banters pretty well with Gil Birmingham, who plays Hamilton’s partner, a half-Mexican half-Comanche who gets generally shit on throughout the film, but manages to hold his own.
Another major piece of this film that was done exceptionally well was the score, which was written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I have been a fan of these guys since I first saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Their work includes the aforementioned Assassination, The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless – all great movies with great scores. For their fifth feature film score, they deliver again, with music that is hauntingly beautiful and tense!
The film itself was made for a miniscule budget of only $12 million, and has managed to rake up almost $16 million with a somewhat limited release. With little to no marketing (that I’ve noticed) for this film, it’s not a wonder that it’s not making more. It’s a shame, too, because this is a film that deserves it. With the budding writing career of Taylor Sheridan, the up and coming director in David Mackenzie, and solid cast, crew and creative talent, I don’t think I can recommend this one highly enough. Do yourself a favor and go see this soon, before it’s out of theaters.
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