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When a desperate father (Chris Pine) learns that the bank is going to take his family’s land, he and his ex-con brother (Ben Foster) are left with no choice. They decide to rob the bank’s branches, putting themselves in the crosshairs of an aging Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) in a riveting story of crime, punishment, and brotherly love. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Hell or High Water
Based on its trailers, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water appeared to be a generic, post-millennial criminal heist drama – equal parts Coen Bros No Country for Old Men (2007) and Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010) with perhaps a dash of political relevance and typically pleasant performances from stalwarts Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster. But the cavalcade of critical accolades insisted that it was something more, so I’m forced to approach it with an open mind. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy actor who quickly became a name Hollywood player, following his screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015). Apparently his Hell or High Water script predates Sicario, as it appeared on the 2012 ‘black list’ of beloved unproduced screenplays. On its surface, this is a typical redneck crime opus, complete with sweet-natured folk hero-esque criminals, a ripe & rustic sheriff/ranger (a widow who makes ‘folksy’ jokes about his partner’s ethnicity, naturally), and more shots of two people staring wistfully off into the distance while morosely spouting exposition (usually while sitting on a porch) than you can shake a stick at. It’s a comfortably melancholic meditation on ‘the good ol’ days that also has a lot to say about the current state of the American economy. I’d call it awkward and heavy-handed, except that the angry individuals that filmmakers are depicting seem to have been an important contingent of the voting public this election. The most original component is actually a series of scenes built around angry wait staff being snippy with the rangers. These are both amusing and, intentionally or not, encapsulate the anti-authoritative themes in an unexpected way.

What the characters lack in originality, they make up for in, well, character. Their drama isn’t particularly stimulating, but their sense of humour and the likable performances help to push through the doldrums of familiar plot turns. That said, most of the cast is coasting on their natural charms, especially Bridges and Chris Pine, who have played these two characters before and will play them again. Foster is the VIP, because the he has all of the funniest lines and leads the most impressive action sequence. I am completely unfamiliar with Mackenzie’s work as a director, other than the general praise I’ve heard for his second film, Young Adam. Based on this single sampling, he clearly knows what he’s doing behind the camera. He’s at his best when building tension during the heists and shoot-outs, but the entire film is deep-fried in atmosphere, which is a considerable achievement, considering how naturalistic the cinematography and production design is. The use of steadicam and other smooth-as-silk dolly shots during the robberies is especially nice and I appreciate the terse, unromantic style of the shootouts and car chases.

 Hell or High Water

Video


Hell or High Water was shot using Arri Alexa XT Studio digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens embrace the clarity of the format, rather than trying to make the film-free footage appear gritty or grainy. They also avoid shrouding their story in a lot of shadows, which, I suppose, sets it apart from the typical crime drama and places it more firmly in the realms of ‘neo-westerns.’ It sometimes appears as if the entire film is taking place at either dusk or dawn, leading to loads of softly-lit, elegant widescreen backdrops. Details are quite sharp in the middle and foregrounds, but do tend to fog up as the focus grows shallow in the distance. There is a plush quality to the gradations, especially in the shallow-focus backgrounds, and a bit of colour bleed around the fainter edges, though the filmmakers avoid the artificial, over-smoothed look that sometimes accompanies digitally-shot movies. The colour palette is constantly warmed with rusty and amber hues, which gives the green foliage and pink skin tones a slightly yellow quality, blows out some of the whites, and leaves blue skies looking a bit hazy. It’s not an extreme grading process and black levels tend to endure, while exhibiting only the intended level of crush. Considering the emphasis placed on silhouetted foreground shapes, the cleanliness of these darker areas is important.

Audio


Hell of High Water is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The mix alternates between super-sparse dialogue-driven sequences, tautly-constructed action moments, and full-bodied musical cues. A lot of the dialogue is spoken at a whisper, so the clarity and consistency of the track is more vital than its directional enhancements (though there are plenty of those, too). The score was written by Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis (not to be confused with the influential comic book writer), who have made quite the niche for themselves composing music for woebegone American crime epics, following this and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Lawless (2011). This is another delicate and sombre score that underlines the film’s tone a bit too obviously (I would’ve preferred a few more counterpoint themes), but it is difficult to ignore the impact it and the source country music has.

 Hell or High Water

Extras


  • Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (13:36, HD) – The cast & crew talks about Sheridan’s inspirations, how the characters connect to each other, their motivations, and how they relate to the modern world.
  • Visualizing the Heart of America (9:28, HD) – A look at Mackenzie’s direction, the cinematography, production design, and real-world locations.
  • Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water (12:24, HD) – A casting and acting-focused featurette.
  • Red carpet premiere EPK (1:53, HD)
  • Filmmaker Q&A (29 ) – Footage from a post-movie Q&A conducted at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in LA. The participants include Mackenzie, Bridges, Pine, Foster, and the other lead actor, Gil Birmingham.
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


 Hell or High Water

Overall


I have to admit I’m a little resentful that Hell or High Water was not the creative and unique movie I was told to expect. It does have its charms, though, especially as it enters its final act, and I think I would’ve personally enjoyed it more with my original expectations in check. Those of you that were not disappointed – a sizable majority, it seems – should be happy with this Blu-ray. The image quality is clean, the DTS-HD soundtrack is efficient, and the extras, though brief, fill in the behind-the-scenes process.

 Hell or High Water

 Hell or High Water

 Hell or High Water
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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