“Hell or High Water” is what you would call a sleeper film – it’s a movie made on a low budget without heavy marketing. The film is going to have tremendous impact because of the extraordinarily high quality of the work of the cast, the writer and the filmmakers. Watching this movie is like reading one of those classic beautifully told Western short stories of the late 19th and early 20th century by Owen Wister or Zane Grey – except in the format of film, the literature of our day.
Be sure that you see this film when all your senses are sharp. Every detail in every scene, visual or spoken (or in song) carries meaning. Whole stories are told with very few words, through facial expressions, reactions, signage going by on a highway, a series of crosses on the side of a stucco building, medical paraphernalia left behind near a deathbed. The elaborate story around which the movie is built is interesting in itself. The superb cinematography and dialogue add rich layers to the impact.
Every actor in this film, even if only on screen for a few minutes, delivers a remarkable performance. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Gil Birmingham and Ben Foster could receive award nominations for their work, I believe. Every tiny change in their facial expressions registers complex information. Katy Mixon, as a diner waitress, has a great scene where she changes emotional colors with almost imperceptible nuance. Young Amber Midthunder, as a frightened bank teller, shows depth beyond her years. So many great performances in one film suggest that Scottish director David Mackenzie is a maestro at orchestrating his cast. Sometimes a director from a different world will have a completely clear-eyed view of a foreign landscape and territory. That is indeed the case in this film. Although New Mexico stands in for West Texas here, it’s a moot point, as all that the landscape represents is encompassed there as well. Actor/writer Taylor Sheridan penned the screenplay (he wrote last year’s Sicario).
The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who often work together, is exceptional – it augments the action and adds to the emotional depth rather than getting in the way. British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens provides a powerful view of the stark yet beautiful Western countryside.
Running in a plane beneath the story is a sociological commentary of our times. On this level the film shows us that though we may think we are more evolved than we were at the time of the “Old West”, we have the same imperfect emotional make up as did the people of that time period. Put us in a similar landscape literally, economically and emotionally, and we’ll make the same choices. That’s what makes “Hell or High Water” great – it succeeds as a true Western, a universal tale, set in our time.