‘Hell or High Water’ ends summer movie drought

Jeff Bridges, left, plays Marcus Hamilton and Gil Birmingham plays Alberto Parker in the film Hell or High Water. (CBS Films)
Jeff Bridges, left, plays Marcus Hamilton and Gil Birmingham plays Alberto Parker in the film “Hell or High Water.” (CBS Films)

This has been an unusually dry summer movie season. Typically most summers have a couple of critical and commercial hits – “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Jurassic World” were a couple of the standouts from last summer – but this summer has been a drag. A few solid, but unremarkable blockbusters, such as the early summer hit “Star Trek: Beyond,” and others have brought some reprieve to an unusually dry movie season, filled with disappointing reboots and sequels.

It’s a relief that the end of the summer has delivered a couple of noteworthy films, including “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Pete’s Dragon, and, while certainly not a traditional “summer blockbuster,” David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water.

Set in modern Texas, the film follows a divorced father (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother (Ben Foster) as they rob a series of banks in order to save their family’s farm. Meanwhile, two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) follow their trail in an attempt to bring them to justice.

Although not a sequel, reboot or remake, “Hell or High Water” is not a subversive film. In fact, comparisons to the Coen brothers are both justified and warranted. The movie feels like a blend of “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo.” It has a cat and mouse structure and visual landscape similar to “No Country,” musical cues similar to “Fargoand a dark sense of humor similar to both the aforementioned films.

Like the Coen brothers, director David Mackenzie puts a strong emphasis on characterization over action. It certainly has its fair share of exciting and expertly blocked set pieces, but the film takes its time to get to these sequences in favor of character interactions. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens film many of these interactions in wide shots, allowing all the characters in the scene to be onscreen at once. This allows the stunning vistas to be fully admired, but it also allows the actors to become fully engaged in their scenes.

It certainly helps that the ensemble proves to be more than up to the challenge. Jeff Bridges is the standout, balancing levity and gravity to make for an incredibly fleshed out performance. The range of emotions that he goes through throughout the course of the film (and sometimes a single scene) is staggering. The rest of the cast is equally as impressive. Chris Pine channels his charisma and likability from the recentStar Trek” films and adds a level of sincerity that he has not been able to reach until this point. Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham are equally as impressive, but Pine’s and Bridges’ characters are the emotional core of the story.

 What a story it is. On a surface level, the screenplay works as an entertaining and engaging thriller. But beyond that, “Hell or High Water” is really a story about greed and an intelligent commentary on class in America. The way that the story of these two brothers ties into this central theme makes for a screenplay that is consistently intelligent and very often thought-provoking. Furthermore, because all of the characters are well developed, it is never one sided. There are good qualities and flaws in all of the characters, and their differing perspectives are understandable and difficult to choose between. Ultimately, the film encourages thinking rather than choosing a side.

It isn’t perfectly executed. On occasion, characterization is replaced by heavy-handed monologues, which makes the film a bit less complex or resonant than it could have been. It also isn’t as expertly crafted or narratively complex as something like “No Country for Old Men.” Nonetheless, “Hell or High Water” is still a consistently intelligent, often thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining film.

It closes out the summer on a high note.

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