In a season of big-budget flops, “Hell or High Water” is the most purely enjoyable movie of the Summer. On a budget less than one-tenth that of “Suicide Squad,” “Independence Day 2,” and various other trash spectacles promising thrills but leaving me with a numb feeling—like I’d just watched someone else have the time of their life on crystal meth for two hours while I was the sober scold saying maybe it’d be more fun to read a book—“High Water” manages to deliver honest thrills. It’s yet the latest example of how special effects have gone from enhancing the joy of movies to ruining it, putting the action behind a plate glass so thick it can no longer touch us.
What Works: Chris Pine’s hard-luck rancher is desperate to save his family’s ranch (that Texas Midlands Bank is eager to repossess) since oil has been found on the property, and recruits his fresh-from-prison brother (Ben Foster, in one of his most genuine and least affected performances) to help in a series of Texas Midlands bank heists designed to pay the bank back with their own money. Hot on their tail is Jeff Bridges soon-to-retire Texas Ranger and his Native American partner (Bridges’ two great loves are tormenting his partner with racist jokes and the feeling of being in pursuit of a bad guy).
Bridges is clearly enjoying himself, and makes the fun contagious, but these are career-high performances from Foster and Chris Pine, acting here with a soulful intelligence I didn’t know he possessed. Pine’s regular guy has exact motivations for Breaking Bad that he explains brilliantly in a last-scene monologue about spirit-crushing poverty being almost a genetic sickness. He’s the most likable movie anti-hero in years, and “High Water” is the rare crime film that doesn’t treat it’s criminals like rare, exotic birds. It’s all the better because they’re basically regular guys trying to live out a great adventure, and it’s near impossible not to root for them.
The sun-drenched Texas plains scenery is beautiful, and infuses the tension with unfussy poetry and myth, and the movie uses time (the bleak side of right now) and place expertly, like when they’re robbing yet another Texas bust-town and the locals have guns of their own, and feel freed when finally getting an excuse to use them. Half the fun is seeing how everyone—including “innocent” bystanders—are trying to get in on the action-movie scenario before them.
What Doesn’t: Sure, there are a few scenes—like Foster’s staredown of a Comanche in the Indian casino or Pine beating up a punk at a gas station—that feel like maybe they’re trying just a little too hard, and you could argue that some of the film’s most realistic scenes (like Pine’s heart-to-heart with his son) are ones that are less likely to be remembered than the flashier add-ons, but those are smalllll gripes compared to the bigger picture.
What I Would Have Done Differently: You could take out a scene or two, and possibly even move up some of the scenes explaining character motivations (the brother’s scene with their lawyer explains a lot but doesn’t take place until after the halfway point) but make no mistake, this is one of the best films of the year. By all means, go.