We've seen an ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the incredible true story of a heroic pacifist in bloody war. Today, something completely different, the biggest surprise nominee of this year's Academy Awards: the modern Western Hell or High Water.
This modern Western tells the story of the Howard brothers, the youngest a failed rancher, the eldest an unhinged ex-con, but both down on their luck. After their mother dies, and the First Texas bank threatens to foreclose on the ranch, the two make a drastic decision to try and save it: robbing banks. Not just any bank though, but First Texas itself, as part of a cunning plan. Of course such crime attracts attention even in the forgotten outskirts of the Old South, and soon the brothers have two brothers-in-arms gunning for them, a duo of Federal Marshalls.
Pretty straightforward, some might even say run-of-the-mill, were it not that what separates Hell or High Water from many other similar crime thrillers is the excellent pacing, which grants plenty of time to building the characters into actual people the audience can root for, while still keeping the tension on a constant high, building up to a satisfying finale. Thanks to its focused narrative and Taylor Sheridan's lean script, which in itself is worth a read, the bare-bones story still feels rounded, elevating the film a step above its solely entertaining brethren.
Chris Pine brings the heart, but Ben Foster is the one who brings the thunder, and who truly shines as the psychotic Tanner, a man oozing danger and rage, yet still letting through glimmers of brotherly love from time to time. Their chemistry sells the partnership, the blood bond, which makes the story believable and enthralling, something many a thriller fails to do nowadays.
On the other side is Jeff Bridges, who plays the kind of character he is expected to play for the rest of his career, a snarky lawman on his last legs, grudgingly stumbling towards the obscurity of retirement. Bridges has so much experience in this type, it comes natural to him, yet here it does not come off as forced or cheap, because his character never becomes a caricature. His own partnership with his Native American partner is a joy to behold, as they exchange friendly insults while on the hunt, really selling an only implied history together, and offering a clever parallel to the robber-brothers.
With its lean-and-mean script, smart storytelling and strong, rounded performances across the board, especially from Pine and Foster, Hell or High Water rises above the swamp of so-so crime flicks, earning itself the title of Surprise of the Year.