Review: ‘Hell or High Water’ Is the Modern Western You Didn’t Know You Wanted

hell or high water review

Believe it or not, the best westerns in filmmaking history have been more than action movies. They’ve been more than thrilling shootouts and chase scenes on horseback. As Hollywood gradually replaced the more bombastic side of the western genre with new tiers of disaster, comic-book, and pulp movies, the general consensus has become that the golden age of westerns has long been over.

But the best westerns have always been about something, a lesson painfully unlearned by Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, yet gratefully grasped by the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. And Hell or High Water, directed by Starred Up‘s David Mackenzie, also stars Jeff Bridges in this present-day western about bank-robbing brothers who have high aspirations for petty thieves. Well, one of them at least.

Bridges plays a Texas Ranger in search of the crafty bandits, joined by his half-Native American partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. They’re after the Howard brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who’ve been robbing small banks belonging to the same Texas branch in towns all over the state. This might sound like a dour crime movie set within a western backdrop, but it’s a actually a more lively affair than its close cousin, No Country for Old Men, yet as somber and beautifully shot as last year’s Sicario, which writer Taylor Sheridan also produced the script for.

The combinations and comparisons don’t end there. Hell or High Water is also a talkative film that brazenly explores the painful consequences of the Great Recession, paralleled with how the 21st Century has both changed and been passed over in these small towns across west Texas. In other words, this is a western that actually has a lot to say when the bullets aren’t flying.

hell or high water review

Despite all of its obvious inspirations, Hell or High Water manages to be an unpredictable experience, never resorting to obvious plot contrivances that would manufacture tension between Foster and Pine, who have one of the more unique brotherhood dynamics in recent cinema. Pine is very much the straight man, while his brother is essentially the Joker without face paint — an agent of chaos with a surprisingly sober backstory to lend credibility to his madness. Watching these two actors play off each other is a high point of the film, enhanced by how similarly compelling the relationship is between the rangers, Bridges and Birmingham, who are constantly after them.

Hell or High Water is slow in parts and often methodical in how it wants you to absorb its scenery and frequent allusions to “Debt Relief” signs and shots of working-class Texans who are either packing heat or know someone nearby who is. This could be wrongly perceived as preachy storytelling or an obvious “Robin Hood” spin on the west, if it weren’t for the complex and animated Bridges, who lives by a code of justice that is as sympathetic as the supposed protagonists. Yet just as horrifying.

In short, it’s no 99 Homes. The world of west Texas is easy to disappear into once the first shot is established, as you’re forced to wonder if this is some sort of post-apocalyptic version of the U.S., despite the setting being quite true-to-life and accurate in terms of how massive sprawls of the country have become lawless, apathetic wastelands due to financial greed. It’s probably one of the most interesting “fantasy” worlds created for the big screen this year, and it’s not even fabricated or dolled up with CGI.

hell or high water review

There are a lot of words that describe Hell or High Water in a satisfying way. It’s cynical, yet humorous.  Brainy, yet simple. Mischievous, yet noble. Depressing, yet beautiful. Touching, yet tragic. Straightforward, yet ironic. It’s the masterful combination of these juxtapositions, complemented by well-rounded performances across the cast, that elevate what should have been a B-list movie into one of the best (and most relevant) westerns in years.

Grade: A

Extra Credits:

  • David Mackenzie, who is Scottish, shoots Texas like a true European. Mostly flat shots of the land and wide landscapes to impress upon the magnitude of the state. This is something a lot of American filmmakers tend to take for granted. Though to be fair, this film was mostly shot in New Mexico.
  • “What don’t you want?”
  • This might seem obvious, but a lot of the extras in this movie are “real” people they filmed on location.
  • Seriously, if the idea of Jeff Bridges playing a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement doesn’t draw you in to see a movie, we need have a discussion in the comments below.
  • The tracking shots are a lot better than the more gimmicky “one-shots” you’ll see in standard films. Each one is simple and elegant, getting the moment of the scene across, rather than bragging about the lack of cuts.

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‘Don’t Think Twice’ Is a Surprisingly Heartfelt Comedy About Improv

don't think twice

A feature film that centers around the life and times of an improv group in New York City definitely sounds like something a screenwriter in LA would pitch to his bosses at least once a year. That’s because you can make a decent film out of just about any idea, but it can be very challenging to craft a relatable film from a singular art, especially one that’s literally built around the idea of people “making things up as they go along.”

We can expect this kind of specific storytelling from a talent like Mike Birbiglia, one of the most understated comedians in the industry, as well as an exciting director and writer. His last film, Sleepwalk With Me, was a dramatic retelling of one of his most famous standup routines, an emotional (and funny) story about how his desperation to avoid marriage and commitment drove him to sleepwalking through a window and out of a building.

Don’t Think Twice is a stronger and more humorous film overall, but it still follows Birbiglia’s pattern of choosing one critical, uncomfortable plot point and driving the rest of the narrative around it. In this case, he’s going after the jealousy that forms from when someone becomes rapidly successful, and how that alters the lives and relationships of his closest friends (even the tagline drives this home with “the spotlight is not for everyone”).

This just happens to involve a popular improv group made up of six friends with immediate comedic talent as improvisation performers. They get on stage each week and play out improvised situations, always leaning off of the audience support of someone who has had a particularly hard day.

don't think twice

Don’t Think Twice kicks off in the middle of some harder times for the group, and it’s pushed further when Jack (played by Keegan-Michael Key) gets an audition for Weekend Live, the movie’s version of Saturday Night Live. Though his friends initially support him, it becomes clear that Jack’s newfound fame isn’t doing anything to improve his current relationships, including his romantic relationship with Sam (played by the true star of the film, Gillian Jacobs).

What follows from there is a deeply involved dramatic comedy that pits each improv member against each other and themselves, always decrying the “need” for selling out, while simultaneously working to make sense out of how Jack’s success says more about them than it does him. Jack’s 36-year-old teacher, Miles (played by Birbiglia), is the biggest culprit, as he can’t seem to understand why he hasn’t been able to reach the heights of his own students, moments after he’s lured another student to his “dorm room” apartment to have some fun.

The rest of the cast has less to do than Key, Jacobs, and Birbiglia, but they’re all as crucial to the film’s emotional punches as they are to the fictional improv performances they take part in. Chris Gethard as Bill gets a few small scenes that feel mostly servant to how his life affects the core members, even though he garners some of the biggest laughs from the film’s staged improv scenes. Tami Sagher gets even fewer attention, and tragically so, as she’s the only one in the group who is financially secure, despite losing her job and relying mostly on rich parents.

don't think twice

Kate Miccuci is certainly short-thrifted here, getting even fewer chances to have much of an impact despite her tremendous talent, but the saving grace is that Don’t Think Twice works best when the group is together on stage, at their favorite bar, and back at the shared apartment. Though not everyone gets their due, that’s sort of how improv tends to work, anyway. And as a result, Gillian Jacobs as Sam gets to shine in one of her best performances to date, culminating in a single scene toward the end of the film that is one of my favorite movie moments of 2016.

If you’ve ever had to deal with how friendships can always feel a little tense and competitive, which should be just about everyone, then Don’t Think Twice has something brutally honest to tell you, but it’s not a hand-wrung comedy. If anything, it excels more at being a vague, even loose passage of events, rather than a cohesive narrative that drives a single purpose that the audience must consume and accept all as one. In other words, it’s one of those few, modest films that actually has something for everyone.

Grade: B+

Extra Credits:

  • I love Sleepwalk With Me, but if you truly want a great intro to Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, check out his standup routine that the movie is based on.
  • Also, here’s a somewhat interesting fact. Mike Birbiglia is the first mainstream comedian I’ve ever seen live.
  • According to Birbiglia, the cast actually received instruction from a professional improv coach because Gillian Jacobs and Kate Miccuci had never actually performed this type of comedy before.  Makes sense, though, when you consider that Jacobs went to Julliard.
  •  Birbiglia has also stated that the premise behind Don’t Think Twice mimics how Judd Apatow reacted when his roommate, Adam Sandler, was cast on Saturday Night Live decades ago, before either were famous. The pair have collaborated on a movie together: the 2009 dramedy, Funny People.

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