If you’re going to make a movie based in West Texas about the destruction of the agrarian economy and the way the banks rape the poor and why so much of the American heartland has turned into a ghost town husk of what it once was, what better way to embellish the moments than to include the songs of artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Scott H. Biram, Colter Wall, and Chris Stapleton in it. These are the men who’ve witnessed the destruction first hand and sing about it regularly.
Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by David Mackenzie, and starring Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine, is a neo-Western story about two brothers that go on a bank robbing spree to help keep the family farm in the family. Soundtrack and score writers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis also included classic country cuts from Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt in the film, answering the question for many traditional/independent country fans what it would feel like to witness a modern-day big budget movie with all of your favorite artists comprising the soundtrack. The answer is it’s pretty damn cool.
But Hell or High Water is much more than just a vehicle for good music. Up for multiple Academy Awards Sunday night (2-26), including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, director David Mackenzie has taken his little film with a cool soundtrack and made it one of the most critically-acclaimed flicks of the season, shining a greater spotlight on the artists and songs that are deftly interwoven with the story, and in moments with haunting and auspicious timing. Independent music artists know that awards aren’t everything, but if Hell or High Water wins big at the Oscars, it will be no small bragging rights for the musicians involved.
The film moves a little bit slow at the beginning, struggling to create the adrenaline rush you would anticipate from scenes of bank robberies and high-speed getaways. It takes a while for the viewer to find a personal connection with the main characters, and despite the true-to-life and naturally-poetic setting of West Texas, we’ve seen this many times before, and recently. The story of the retiring (or recently retired) lawman, in this case Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton played by Jeff Bridges, is a trope of many of these movies. Take Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men for example.
When the intricacy of the plot of the two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster begins to be revealed, and the relationship between them is given time to meld, this is when the movie begins to take hold, especially when their plan begins to race to a conclusion, and risks unraveling. This isn’t your traditional Oscar-contending film in the sense that it isn’t primarily intellectual or artistic in scope. These elements are certainly paid great deference, but this is a film of action, plot twists, and characters.
Where Hell of High Water does play to the Hollywood mindset is how it re imagines the whole Robin Hood story in a fresh and relevant light, despite the age and grit that encompass the story in its West Texas setting. This film could have been set in 1980 from how so many of the buildings, places, and people haven’t changed. But the story is very 2017 in how legacy farms and ranches throughout the United States—and the family ties that have made them the harbor of memories for generations—are being threatened like never before by a modern-day banking system that does not account for how estate taxes and corporate farming do a disservice to the interests of independent land owners.
As Hell or High Water works towards its conclusion, the lines between good and bad get blurred, and the moments and characters hold much more weight. Though the film feels like an outsider for Best Picture, and one you probably watch once and greatly enjoy but don’t feel the need to revisit, it does sell you on the idea it should be in contention for the best in a given year.
Often it is mourned that music awards shows are not more like the Oscars, where truly the best films and the best performances are what is rewarded as opposed to a simple acknowledgement of commercial success. Yet as we’ve seen in recent years—including an Oscar for Ryan Bingham in 2010—the film industry can be a lucrative outlet for the artists that should receive accolades, but are often overlooked. Hell or High Water not only accomplishes this, it’s a hell of a movie.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
– – – – – – – – –