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Man Seeking Movies: ‘Hell or High Water’ is a showcase of great writing

From the writer of Sicario, this bank-heist drama may be the best movie of 2016 so far.

By Jack Cronin | Aug. 30, 2016

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With summer movie season winding to a close, it feels safe to say that this has been a relatively disappointing one. DC’s much anticipated Suicide Squad tanked; Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon failed to revive a beloved action franchise with Jason Bourne. Even successful blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War and Star Trek Beyond slipped into the recesses of audiences’ minds just weeks after their releases amidst an endless slew of sequels.

But more often than not, the summer’s high-budget films don’t make for the year’s best or most memorable. In fact, Columbia’s very own Ragtag Cinema just opened a bank-heist drama that may be the best movie of 2016 to date: Hell or High Water.

Penned by Taylor Sheridan (also known for Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water is a brilliant showcase of writing that could likely result in a few award nominations. It’s a rare film that is simultaneously funny, thrilling, suspenseful and emotionally resonant.

The story follows a pair of brothers — Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) – as they traverse the deserts and worn-down towns of West Texas, robbing banks along the way. Their motives are initially unclear, but are gradually revealed. Meanwhile, a pair of Texas Rangers named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) trace their steps.

Mackenzie's pacing is a testament of his patient directing and faith in Sheridan’s script. Little or nothing happens in the vast majority of scenes, as much of the film’s runtime is spent with either the Howard brothers or the Texas Rangers casually interacting. Where some films would struggle with such a slow tempo, Hell or High Water excels with its fresh, funny dialogue as each duo exchanges insults and jokes.

Beyond the amusing banter, Sheridan’s writing also boasts a handful of great side characters. It’s an extremely unique film in which every diner waitress or bank teller is lively and compelling enough to demand an extra half hour of screen time.

Although Sheridan deserves the bulk of the credit, Mackenzie and his cast are equally praiseworthy. From Pine’s protagonist to side characters who only appear in one scene, literally every actor disappears into their roles, making the most of their time on screen. The most remarkable performances, though, come from Bridges and Foster, who are almost unrecognizable as their respective characters. Each manages to render a firm, relatable humanity in gruff, weathered individuals.

Despite having a relatively weak track record, Mackenzie’s directing is superb in Hell or High Water. He doesn’t overplay a single emotional note, giving the few sentimental moments even greater weight. From bank heists and shootouts to simple conversations over food, Mackenzie’s command of tone never shifts or waivers. Each action sequence carries a grave seriousness. The stakes are so incredibly high and real that members of the audience audibly gasp when shots are fired.

Truthfully, not much about Mackenzie and Sheridan’s film fails to work. It might lack the extra oomph of profound thematic meanings or massive action set pieces that would make it truly great. But it doesn’t need that flair.

In a fairly weak year for movies, Hell or High Water is the best to date with a brilliant showcase of writing that is amusing, suspenseful and gripping.

MOVE gives Hell or High Water 4 out of 5 stars.

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