Hell or High Water is a respectable, if somewhat flawed, attempt at the modern Western. Whilst it does contain legitimately stunning cinematography, and the script does its best to highlight its themes of urban decay, the human cost of sin, and the contrast between the old and new West, it does very little to add anything new to the genre. As it is, Hell or High Water should be commended for its attempts to replicate the triumphs of films such as No Country For Old Men, even if it never quite manages to pull it off.
The major strength of this film lies in its ability to depict the inherent beauty of the urban decay which dominates the majority of the frame in every shot. This is a world in which the promises of modernity, of the destruction of the old West as a sacrifice for the arrival of something better, lies broken in a mangled heap of decaying, rusted iron. This contrast is also reinforced in a darkly humorous sequence involving the comanche casino, a morbid reference to the price of the destruction of an entire tribe, and what that cost ultimately bought. If the film’s strength lies in its cinematography as the catalyst for reinforcing its themes, then its biggest weakness is its characters, who are painfully bland.
The two leads, portrayed by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, are two brothers who decide to begin robbing banks in order to save their mother’s ranch. These characters are typical Western stereotypes who are never allowed to develop outside of their pre-determined caricatures: Pine is the brother forced to commit evil deeds for a good cause, whilst Ben Foster is the recently released brother who cannot escape from his troubled past, but crucially does not want to. These individuals do have outlets which would allow development, Chris Pine’s troubled relationship with his son is hinted at, but never fully explored. As a result, these characters are never truly engrossing, but instead exist as cut-outs of well established Western tropes. This is also the fate of Jeff Bridges’ aging Texas ranger, he puts in a typically enthuastic performance, but his character is far too similar to a number of aging hero stereotypes we have seen before.
Hell or high water is an engrossing watch, if only for the stunning imagery which highlights the decay of the urban American West, but anyone hoping for the next great modern Western may wish to look elsewhere.