Leaving the theater after my press screening of Hell Or High Water, I was very outspoken about one thing in particular. I believe this to be the best screenplay I’ve seen this year. It seems that actor turned writer Tayler Sheridan has done it again, less than a year after he and Denis Villeneuve collaborated with his script and made Sicario, a film I consider one of the best of 2015. Now, Hell Or High Water is here and it’s even better than his first script and leads you to believe that there is far more to the former Sons Of Anarchy deputy sheriff, a writer that has the world at his fingertips, especially after audiences take in this new feature.
Sheridan puts his work under the eye of British director David Mackenzie, a filmmaker with eight features under his belt, including films like Young Adam with Tilda Swinton and Hallam Foe, which was renamed Mister Foe in North America.2013 saw the release of his prison film Starred Up, with young rising star Jack O’Connell, that captivated critics but, unfortunately, went largely unnoticed by audiences here in Canada and the U.S. Yes, this is my plea to you to go find that film now and get versed in his work because now, with Hell Or High Water, he may have tipped his hat to how incredible he is as a filmmaker.
Hell Or High Water is a film deeply rooted in a cash poor and struggling Texas. Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), are just kicking off a series of bank robberies, targeting one certain chain of banks, Texas Midland. The whole plan was put together by Toby, a divorced father of two looking to provide his children and ex-wife with a life in which that don’t need to worry about money and, most importantly, save his mother’s farm from foreclosure, who he looked after before she succumbed to her terminal illness. Tanner, a recently released ex-convict, is more than willing to help his younger brother, appearing to take pleasure in hitting these banks, something that becomes more and more reckless.
Word of their robberies quickly makes its way to the U.S. Marshall’s office, perking the ears of Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a cantankerous Ranger on the verge of retirement who would much rather go out in a blaze of glory rather than live out the rest of his days on the front porch of his house. Along with his half native, half Mexican partner Alberto, played by the scene-stealing Gil Birmingham that you may recognize from Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Marcus sets out to investigate the last case in an aging cowboy’s career. Chasing down the two bank robbers, the two marshalls find that the general public is more celebratory of the two perps than they would expect, as they are taking back what the banks have been taking from them for years.
Within the first two minutes of Hell Or High Water, I was on the edge of my seat and hooked as the film starts with a three hundred and sixty degree panning shot and rolls on as one continuous take into the first bank robbery. David Mackenzie and his director of photography Giles Nuttgens, who shot four of his films already, astound the audience with very original and captivating shots against the blistering hot and dry background of West Texas. The production level of Hell Or High Water is incredible and the perfect example of a cohesive unit firing on all cylinders.
Once again, I have to talk about Taylor Sheridan, who does appear very quickly in this film, and his script. Definitely very unorthodox in its approach and very much giving a reinvention of sorts to the western genre, this film has dialogue that I would dare say is better than anything I’ve seen recently. Infinitely quotable and packing a comedic punch very consistently, I was completely surprised to find myself laughing constantly in this film, so much so that I sometimes missed the following line because I was chuckling so hard. This makes the seriousness of the film very hard hitting when it arises, as the two tones of the story only serve to strengthen each other.
Even with a great script, if you don’t have actors who can back it up the caliber of the words don’t mean anything. Luckily for Sheridan, Mackenzie and company, the actors they assembled for this film knock it out of the park. Chris Pine and Ben Foster exude a brotherly bond that is very palpable and endearing, as you really want to root for these two, putting aside the fact that they are committing felonies. It might be construed to being the Robin Hood effect if you will. On the other side, Bridges and Birmingham have a comradery based on ribbing each other mercilessly but the friendship is evident and you root for them just as much. Beyond that, Jeff Bridges gives a performance so gravely and weathered in its delivery, that he may find himself in an award season competition along with Taylor Sheridan. It’s robbery if this doesn’t happen. See what I did there?
For me, this year Hell Or High Water will be a hard film to beat for how much I enjoyed my time in the theater, so much so that I jokingly asked for the rep to run it again. It’s a film I could watch over and over again and have my love renewed for it and may even come out of it loving it more each and every time. It’s rare to find a completely flawless film and, for this reason, David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan deserve the utmost respect for creating a film that will snowball with the word of mouth it will get as soon as it’s released. We have a best picture contender here, folks, get out and see it. A perfect five out of five.