Hell or High Water was a sneaky film. It snuck up on us out of nowhere and it stealthily inserted itself into many Best Of 2016 lists. It stars Captain Kirk in a low-key role, which he plays to perfection. His low-key movie star good looks and natural charisma are nicely balanced by the superb acting of perennial scene-stealer Ben Foster, and old pro Jeff Bridges. Even the minor roles are filled out nicely with solid acting, some of whom seem to be real people plucked out of the Texas dirt in the best neorealist tradition.
The film is getting rave reviews, with many calling it the best film of the year. It is a very solid film – but the fact that it is even in the conversation for Best Picture hints at what a weak year for cinema 2016 was. It is another iteration of the revisionist Western – a Bonnie and Clyde style outlaw saga set in an economically ravaged part of Texas. The cast carries it, but the cinematography is equally ambitious – the opening scene is an aggressive, rotating and lengthy single-take tracking shot that establishes the poverty of the film’s world, introduces the protagonists and gives us some nice visuals to chew on. As it goes on, the cinematography is very effective at evoking a believable sense of time and place. It feels like Texas.
This is the right movie for the right times, depicting greedy banks as malicious, life-ruining villains. The film is about bank robbers – but we are meant to sympathize with them from the beginning, as their turn toward crime is their only recourse in the face of the all-consuming demon of greedy capitalism. Their response to predatory banking is also a rather uniquely American one – to get armed to the teeth, dig in on your own land and protect your family, invoke your rights, and guard your inheritance and your freedom against an institutional chimera through sheer force of will backed up by armed resistance.
This film came along at an interesting time in American history and obviously speaks to a lot of people who feel that elites and institutions – financial, political, social – have let them down. It plays out as a sort of golden-tinted fantasy: handsome, charming brothers taking matters into their own hands, doubling down on individualism to fight the good fight against the evil systemic forces of corruption and greed that have left this part of Texas to suffocate. That theme resonates at the moment. It also happens to be excellently acted and filmed, with a very natural and believable chemistry between the two brothers that would carry the film whether it had a deeper message or not. An excellent, if not life-changing, film.