By Chris Campo
This past Tuesday, the nominees were announced for the 89th Academy Awards. I was quite proud of myself, as I had seen 7 of the 9 films nominated for best picture. Remaining on my watch list were Fences and Hell or High Water, and because I want this to be a year where I have seen all 9 films nominated, I immediately went to the store and bought Hell or Highwater on Blu-Ray. The film got a lot of buzz, yet I had no idea what to expect going in, and boy was I blown away.
Hell or Highwater follows a divorced father, Toby (Chris Pine) and his criminal brother, Tanner (Ben Foster). They're making their way through West Texas, robbing banks to save their family's ranch by paying off a reverse mortgage. Their scheme is soon the work of a close-to-retirement Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingman). What was just a simple scheme, robbing small bills from small banks, turned into a deadly game of cat and mouse. It's an intense and very unique bank heist film and the fact that it got award recognition makes me incredibly happy.
This film has a really nice look to it. It's mostly brown and saturated but with color here and there that really pops. West Texas is shot almost like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, everything feeling as though it were in the world of Mad Max right before everything went to total shit. I understand that this is what West Texas actually looks like, but it's shot with a certain gusto that adds this layer of urgency and unruliness, so hats off to the director, David Mackenzie, and cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens. It's also written by the pen behind Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, who's screenplay is not only gripping, clever and sprinkled with humour, but also has a few things to say about the American bank system and gun control.
It's a slow burn, but one of those slow burns that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout its short run-time. Sure, there's action, but this is not an action film. It's a drama with far more emotion and personal-level storytelling than I was expecting. Moments in between the intense bank heights, car chases or shootouts are greeted with characters just sitting down and talking most of the time. Exposition is very rarely the driving force of conversation. Dialogue feels natural and often characters just talk about nothing relevant, doing wonders by creating more developed, realised characters. If you're reading this and you think it sounds boring, it isn't, and waiting as the film takes it's time is well worth it, as the final act of this film will leave anyone white-knuckling and sweating just as many bullets as the ones being fired on screen.
All of the performances in this movie are just spectacular. I'm familiar with Ben Foster, but have never been properly blown away by his work until this film. His character is rotten to the core but there's something about his brilliant performance that makes him ever so likable. I've always liked Chris Pine and here he just might give my personal favourite performance of his. His work is subtle, yet layered, and peeling back those layers up until the credits of the film is a real treat for any fan of film. Jeff Bridges' character may be a tad bit of a cliché, being a cop a week away from retirement, but he still delivers an incredible and surprisingly emotional performance. I didn't think a film like this would make me emotional, but that's the power of performances like these.
Speaking on the Oscar race and the chances this film has, honestly, I think they're slim. I think it's best chances are in the best original screenplay category, because this script is nothing short of remarkable, but this just doesn't feel like a best picture winner to me. Every year there are two or three films nominated that you know won't win, but are happy to see nominated anyway, and for me, this film is one of those. Also, let's be honest with ourselves, love it or hate, La La Land is probably going to sweep (which I'm okay with). I just can't see Jeff Bridges, as good as he is in this film, beat Mahershala Ali in the supporting actor category. As I mentioned, however, I am still very happy to see a film like this get the recognition it deserves.
Hell or Highwater is a gripping and surprisingly human tale of brotherhood and justice. It's unlike any bank heist film I have ever seen and I was quite blown away by it. The slow pacing should not be a deal breaker, as we become increasingly invested in the characters and story in every scene. It's a film that deserves all it's praise and one that I can see becoming a new modern classic.
4 1/2 Stars
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