ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Hell or High Water (2016) Blu Ray (Studiocanal)
Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) stage a series of robberies at bank branches across Texas so as to pay off the debts on their family farm. Once done, their family (including Toby’s estranged wife and sons) will gain financial security from extracting the oil lying beneath the property. Ageing Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Native American, half-Latino partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are in pursuit.
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Hell or High Water is very much a Western homage transplanted to a present-day American landscape. We get a pair of bank robber brothers a la Frank and Jesse James. We get an endless desert landscape dotted with dusty towns. We get gunfights. We get fast cars in lieu of horses. We get a Stetson-wearing sheriff. We get an Indian. However, the references run deeper than mere stylistic tropes to become a commentary on how America is now versus what it was back in the frontier days. Here, Cowboy Marcus and Indian Alberto work together, and it’s no longer the white settlers grabbing land from the natives. As Alberto points out to Marcus at one point, it’s the banks seizing land from the settler’s grandsons and granddaughters who live in the endless string of dried-up towns. Each journey down the arrow-straight highway dashes past a series of billboards advertising one moneylender after another. The commentary on the modern world of debt slavery and its resultant side-effects of poverty, backward mentalities and racism (amid one robbery, an aging bystander expresses surprise that Toby and Tanner clearly aren’t Mexicans) is all too clear.
The arid Texan landscape is very much the star here, even more so than big name actors like Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography is something to behold: during the daytime scenes we are presented with a vast world of pale dusty browns mixed with intermittent green patches pitted off against clear blue sky, while the nighttime and casino scenes have a hypnotic neon-bedecked glow to them. The vistas grant an impressive sense of scale to the movie despite its comparatively low $12 million budget. There’s a scene involving a wildfire that looks truly imposing in the way the resultant wall of smoke blots out the sky - an effect doubtless created with CGI but still impressively vivid as well as being symbolic of the devastation inflicted on these small communities via the financial crash. The exuberance of the outside world is effectively contrasted by the naturalistic, “in the moment” feel projected by shots of the bank interiors during the heist sequences.
Tonally, Hell or High Water is an unusual blend of quirky indie movie sensibilities and exciting action. A lot of the former comes from the interactions between the four protagonists and the various colourful locals they encounter on their way. Even the smallest of roles are well-defined and their characters have distinctive traits and motivations. A young diner waitress who receives an unusually generous tip from Toby while his brother robs a bank expresses her reluctance at giving up the notes for evidence - firstly because she needs the money for her mortgage and secondly because she has quite clearly taken a fancy to her customer. She is only in the film for a few minutes but we clearly feel her character has a life outside of the film’s focus. It’s the same with a lot of the people we encounter here. Admittedly the midsection does get a little too bogged down in its “character moments” rather than homing in on its central pursuit scenario. However, the exciting finale is worth the wait, featuring bloody shootings, a tense checkpoint sequence, a car chase involving a procession of SUVs, some Rambo-esque machine gun spraying and arguably the best bit of desert sniper rifle action since Mystery Road (2013).
The four leads are outstandingly good. Jeff Bridges brings yet another great character to his repertoire: a grizzled tough guy who uses casual racism in a manner that’s more part of his sarcastic demeanour than outright hostility. Gil Birmingham is more restrained as his half-breed partner but really comes into his own during their later scenes together. Chris Pine proves there’s life beyond Star Trek reboots, carving out a niche as someone capable of criminality but simultaneously reluctant to embrace it due to an innate sense of decency that even extends as far as putting his estranged family above himself. Although on the wrong side of the law - and shown once to be capable of inflicting brutal violence when he’s crossed - he’s ultimately the closest this film has to a hero. Ben Foster’s Tanner, on the other hand, seems to wholeheartedly embrace his own lawlessness, his rowdy rashness never quite crossing into cartoon bandit territory but certainly evincing less of a moral compass than Toby.
The other element of real note is the atmospherically sombre score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It provides an effective grounding and underpinning to the action, rooting it more in sorrow than in any kind of romantic glory.
Runtime: 102 mins
Dir: David Mackenzie
Script: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Studiocanal’s presentation is nothing short of beautiful. The rich atmosphere comes out in every shot, from the dust kicked up by Toby and Tanner’s speedings away from their various heists to the wide spectrum of bright illuminations during the casino sequence.
The 5.1 DTS HD audio is immersive, the sound effects well placed in the stereo mix so that the action feels like it is convincingly taking place around the viewer. Cave and Ellis’s soundtrack really stamps itself on the psyche here, its reverberations seemingly filling the room. A stellar effort.
A look at the performances. We learn that Chris Pine was keen to play a more introverted role than usual and that there was a lot of research carried out to make the characters as authentic as possible - something that’s quite plainly evident while watching the film. The character of Marcus was apparently based on Taylor Sheridan’s uncle, who was a genuine Texas Ranger.
Taylor Sheridan reveals that he was inspired by revisiting the area he grew up in and finding depressed towns and a landscape scarred by fracking where only the tough survive. He talks about the themes of brotherhood and the cycle of poverty. An engrossing look at the underlying drivers behind the characters here.
Visualising the Heart of America
A look at how cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captured those all-important New Mexico landscapes and evaporating Texas downtowns with his earth tones and wide shots, using high and hard light to emphasise the heat. A nice if short insight into this crucial aspect of the film.
Interview with David MacKenzie
This British director reveals that he wanted to make the film feel very American rather than that of an outsider looking in, so he surrounded himself with a lot of “American attitude”. He also talks about the organic genre mix, the challenges of filming and the moments he enjoyed most of all.
Hell or High Water Premiere
A fairly glib 1 minute and 54 seconds of cast and director soundbites from the film’s premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, Austin, Texas, interspersed with footage from the film itself. Not much of note.
Filmmaker Q & A
A half-hour stage Q & A with the director and four main stars. They talk about the film’s relevance to modern times as well as it hearkening back to the humanistic American genre pictures of the late 60s and early 70s - some of which starred a younger Jeff Bridges. Interestingly, Chris Pine admits that he saw it as a film about brotherhood and male camaraderie rather than the wider social commentary, a revelation that confirms how immersed he got into his onscreen role.
It’s not a bad collection of extras but slightly unremarkable. The front-loaded trailers are annoying - why do some companies insist on doing this for a format where being able to watch the film whenever you want is one of the main draws? The skip button is your friend here, but wouldn’t your rather not have the inconvenience?
It’s a fine movie with enough depth to give it real rewatchability, meaning that this Blu Ray is well worth the investment even if the extras aren’t that special.