Hell or High Water (2016) – movie review


Hell or High Water is a neo-western crime drama set in modern-day West Texas. It follows two sides of one criminal chase and two characters from each side.

The primary side is the criminal’s point of view; one brother planning a string of robberies in order to save his father’s farm from foreclosure and the other brother assisting in the dirty work.

The other side is the law’s point of view; one Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who’s having a little difficulty letting go of work and his partner, a family man who has to tolerate the retiree-to-be’s slightly racist comments.

This film is one of the best neo-westerns I’ve ever seen. Swap the cars for horses and you’d have a fantastic western, but the modern setting adds so much more.

Most of the characters in Hell or High Water are modern-day Americans just trying to make a living in a world where their banks are making that really difficult, not too different to the current state of a majority of Americans.

Hell or High Water‘s screenplay should be studied by anyone who wants to become a screenwriter because it manages to hold so many cards in terms of character and motivation yet the cards aren’t in full view. You may not notice these great little techniques and giblets until you pull back the layers through deep thought but the effect is always present.

Both sides of this chase are given about equal screen time and both are accessible for us to sympathise with. I found myself rooting for the brothers to succeed when they were on screen as I found myself rooting for the police to find the brothers. Yet there comes a moment when the sympathy is challenged and it makes for one of the most thought conflicting movie moments of 2016.

The screenplay feels completely modern yet the feeling of hot-day suspense is not much different to that of the classic spaghetti western.


Where No Country for Old Men used the setting to portray a chase between an unstoppable monster and a regular joe, Hell or High Water uses it to point a huge middle finger from the more poverty-stricken areas of the U.S. straight to the banks. This theme isn’t always obvious throughout but it is always present.

Also in similarity to No Country for Old Men, this film doesn’t go for the hellstorm-of-different-shots approach as much as the “let’s keep the camera in two places and watch the fire burn”.

The majority of the (good) soundtrack is performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, just to push the West Texas aesthetic even further.

Most of the performances were solid however an issue I had with Jeff Bridges’ character (the slightly racist retiree-to-be) was that the Texan accent was put on so thick, I found myself not understanding what he said quite a few times.

My main fault with Hell or High Water (one of my only faults) is that the character who I took to be the protagonist -Chris Pine as the brother organising the crimes- wasn’t all that interesting. It is interesting to see how he plans the heists and what the major game strategy is and it is also intriguing why he’s stealing in the first place but his character alone, not so much.

However, Ben Foster as the reckless ex-con brother was quite the character. He starts off as just being reckless, then he just continues to show his talent for being an asshole and then… he’s a hero. His actions in the final act and a little origin revealed at the very end show that he’s not a complete villain. This made for a character whom I found quite hard to stop thinking about.

Hell or High Water boasts an excellent screenplay which perfectly balances all of the right elements to create the world within and despite the main character not being that interesting, his brother is one who should be noted by all screenwriters.

If you plan on seeing Hell or High Water, expect something like No Country for Old Men because the direction and writing are more or less in the same boat; the boat of great Texan suspense and morality.

What did you think of Hell or High Water? What did you think of No Country for Old Men? Which one is better?

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