In many ways, “Hell or High Water” – set against a backdrop of slow rural decline in the face of an ever-encroaching information society – epitomizes the modern zeitgeist. It is a story of traditionalists’ violent revolt against a changing world, the inimitable beauties of a lifestyle that mass culture has largely rejected, and the fragility of heritable legacies in a society that pushes for ever-broader commoditization. If John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy co-wrote a contemporary Western drama, this would be the result.
On its face, “Hell or High Water” is a simple story about two brothers (Ben Foster and an outstanding Chris Pine) who start robbing banks to prevent the bank from foreclosing on their family ranch. On their heels follows a grizzled-yet-wily Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement (Jeff Bridges).
The film is ruthlessly lean in its presentation – every frame matters, and not a single second feels like wasted time. Each shot is beautifully composed, and the film unfolds as a haunting work of mastercrafted cinematography. Stylistically a Western but tonally a dark crime film, “Hell or High Water” builds and builds tension in the hands of director David Mackenzie, culminating in an utterly satisfying finale.
To label this movie a “heist thriller,” though, is to cheapen what it’s really about. In some ways, this is a red-state “Wolf of Wall Street” that trades hedonistic ennui for raw anger. Thematically speaking, its message is less-than-palatable to cultural elites on both the left and right, coupling an undisguised contempt for modern neoliberalism with the provocative suggestion that rural Americans are being pushed from their land by globalists just as the original pioneers drove the Native Americans from that same land. In so doing, “Hell or High Water” evokes the sentiments of early-period Bruce Springsteen – dignity, rage, hard work, ancestry, place, and many others.
In the meta-sense, “Hell or High Water” is itself an act of defiance against the slow decline of blockbuster filmmaking. In an era where global receipts matter much more than the domestic box office alone, explosions and superheroes have become the universal language – easily translatable across cultures, requiring no shared enthymemes or history, and owing no real thematic debt to their forerunners. “Hell or High Water” unabashedly exists within the distinctly American filmmaking tradition, drawing on emotions, imagery, and characterization that have no corresponding analogues abroad. The film is in some ways a swan song for a way of life viewed by some casual, external observers as brash, “colonialist,” “hick,” “redneck,” etc. – and those observers will, sadly, fail to appreciate why “Hell or High Water” captures a cultural tragedy in the making. For indeed, juxtaposed against the movie’s sadness and violence are moments of great wonder and beauty: the breathtaking grandeur of sunset on the prairie, the utter absence of artifice in interpersonal dealings, the contemplative communitarianism of old age in small towns, and much more.
In short, “Hell or High Water” is a masterpiece – a Mumford and Sons ballad come to life, one that feels both timeless and searingly relevant. Don’t miss it (even if the Academy does).
Beautiful, grim, and achingly elegiac, “Hell or High Water” is hands-down the best film I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended.
Normalized Score: 9.2