Hell or High Water: A Lacking Narrative Brings Down an Intriguing Western (Blu-ray)
Just last year, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan burst onto the scene with the riveting crime drama “Sicario,” which earned him numerous rave reviews and multiple award nominations from prestigious groups that included the Writers Guild of America and the Online Film Critics Society. With such a grand debut, all eyes were on him to see what he would deliver next, which brings us to his second produced work entitled “Hell or High Water,” a project that has him delving into crime once again, but in a significantly different manner than before.
As the film opens, we witness a pair of criminals pull off heists at two different branches of the same bank in Texas, leading them to get away with several thousands of dollars in loose cash. It’s soon revealed that the criminals are brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who are trying to pay off the reverse mortgage on their family ranch that came due when their mother died. Hot on their trail are a close-to-retirement sheriff, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). However, given that they have very little information to go on, their main hope rests in the possibility of the brothers robbing yet another branch of the same bank they’ve been hitting. When the deadline for the brothers’ debt comes due, they aim for one last desperate job to get what they need, leading to an intense confrontation that could be the end of the line.
“Hell or High Water” may have Taylor Sheridan returning to the world of crime, but it needs to be said right up front that this is a completely different film in almost every way, from the pacing and structure right down to the characters we follow. Unfortunately, and it’s rather sad to have to say, it’s some of these differences that end up hurting the film a little too much, turning it into something of a fascinating mix of elements that somehow never comes together into a satisfying whole.
First and foremost, the film’s pacing ends up being its biggest enemy. It sets up a somewhat engaging story of these two brothers who want nothing more than to save their family ranch by stealing money from the bank they’re trying to pay off and the two men who are trying to put a stop to their spree. The problem is, after the story is set up early on in the first act, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go, causing a lot of aimless wandering about as the brothers go about their business and the sheriffs try to figure out their best move. To put this into perspective, this involves Toby and Tanner trading in their money at a casino and paying off some of the debt and Marcus and Alberto patiently staking out a bank that may or may not get robbed.
The structure is perhaps most fascinating of all in that it both helps and hinders the film. On the one hand, it’s compelling to jump back and forth between the two pairs of men (brothers by blood and brothers by vocation) as this scenario plays out, giving us the unique perspective of each side and, at times, making it a little difficult to know who we should be rooting for. It’s easy to root for the brothers because all they want is the money to keep their family ranch, but on the other hand, we know that how they’re going about it is quite wrong, so you kind of want the sheriffs to put an end to their streak of robberies.
The problem arises when you end up with a film in which the lax pacing and the scant nature of the story allows for that structure to delay any important developments until the final act. Speaking of which, it certainly can’t be said that Sheridan didn’t try to bring the film back with a vengeance in the last 30 minutes. Everything comes to a head as the two parties finally clash, giving us a properly thrilling climax, though one that isn’t quite enough to save the film from the issues present throughout the first hour.
All things considered, “Hell or High Water” isn’t a bad film, but rather one in which a decent story got lost along the way. There are definitely things to like about it, including a top-notch cast, beautiful cinematography, fine direction, and a thrilling finale, but all of these things have to stand behind a screenplay that just wasn’t quite up to snuff. Sheridan has shown before that he’s quite talented, and while his latest work didn’t turn out quite as well as one would hope, there’s little doubt that many will still be keeping an eye out for whatever project he delivers next. Here’s hoping he can return to the high levels of writing he achieved on his first dash out of the gate.
“Hell or High Water” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture is perfectly sharp and clear throughout the entire presentation, which does a great job of showing off the film’s stark landscapes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and score in outstanding quality. Overall, the film has received marvelous treatment, ensuring a great experience in both areas.
Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (14 Minutes): A featurette that explores the characters of the film through interviews with the cast and crew.
Visualizing the Heart of America (9 Minutes): A featurette that examines the look of the film through interviews with the director, production designer, producer, and more.
Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water (12 Minutes): A featurette that takes a look at the actors and their characters.
Red Carpet Premiere (2 Minutes): A very brief look at the film’s premiere in Austin, Texas.
Filmmaker Q&A (30 Minutes): A Q&A with the director and cast in which the participants discuss working on the film.
“Hell or High Water” has several positive elements, including a great cast, gorgeous cinematography, and a thrilling finish, but thanks to lax pacing and a narrative that wanders a bit too much, we end up with a film that never truly comes together into a satisfying whole. There’s a good film hidden within these 102 minutes, it’s just rather surprising that the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who showed a decent control of narrative in “Sicario”) couldn’t quite get at it, turning his second outing as a screenwriter into a slight disappointment.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.