HELL OR HIGH WATER Is Jeff Bridges At His Oscar-Worthy Best

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HELL OR HIGH WATER starts Friday 8/19/16.

For my money, there may not be a finer American actor working today than Jeff Bridges. The man is always interesting to watch on the big screen. From earnest heroes in the first remake of KING KONG, TRON, and the wonderful animated film THE LAST UNICORN, to playing as or opposite the zany in films like THE FISHER KING and TH EBIG LEBOWSKI to managing to out-Duke the Duke in the excellent remake of TRUE GRIT, Bridges has consistently reinvented himself over a career spanning nearly every decade of his life. His latest film, HELL OR HIGH WATER, is a modern western noir hybrid, expertly written by Taylor Sheridan (2015’s acclaimed SICARIO) and directed by an Englishman or Scottish heritage named David Mackenzie, who won 16 awards for his 2013 film STARRED UP but has no credits that will be instantly familiar to American audiences. Until now, that is.

The film flows the daring if sometimes amateurish bank heists by brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard. There is an interesting subplot that delves into why they’re only robbing from one specific bank across various branches which I don’t want to spoil, but it’s both hilarious and surprisingly inspiring. Topy is the more thoughtful, less aggressive of the two and Tanner is the wild, shoot first and ask questions later type. I don’t have any real knowledge of how bank robbery jurisdiction works but since they were only taking small, loose bills--nothing over twenties, no bundles—the FBI apparently lets the matter fall to the local Texas Rangers, and specifically to the desk of soon to be retired Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) Hamilton. This old irascible codger spends his days chiding his partner, Mexican-Indian Ranger Alberto (Gil Birmingham) Parker and generally just trying to come to grips with his impending retirement. For all of his faults, Ranger Hamilton is actually a pretty cagey sleuth, and a relatively slow-burn game of cat and mouse is underway.

There are no horseback chases across the plains and no showdowns in the street in front of the saloon at high noon in HELL OR HIGH WATER. There’s just tremendous acting, pacing, storytelling and characterization, and nowadays even just one of those traits would be plenty for most filmgoers. The ending is satisfying without being syrupy, and there are moments peppered throughout where the dialogue or the scene itself is just laugh-out-loud funny. It’s only 102 minutes long, but there’s not a wasted second throughout, making the film more satisfying than movies twice the length. It’s nowhere near as violent or deranged as a Quentin Tarantino western like DJANGO UNCHAINED or THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but when it is violent it doesn’t shy away from it.  The score, by rock musician Nick Cave and his frequent Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis (not to be confused with the comic book writer of the same name), is terrific too.  

As much as I love HELL OR HIGH WATER, I find myself mildly disappointed that the film will probably not garner nearly as much attention as it should come awards season next year. Films this far in front of the consideration cutoff deadline are often forgotten for the big holiday releases and artsy films released just before the deadline to a very limited number of screens. HELL OR HIGH WATER is easily my current frontrunner to clean up at the Oscars, especially for Jeff Bridges, but Pine, Foster, Sheridan, Cave & Ellis and Mackenzie should all warrant real consideration too.  Put this on eat the top of your to do list! 

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0