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‘Hell or High Water’ becomes best western since ‘True Grit’

Western movies traditionally serve as a cinematic forum, inherently pushing the limits of the genre and testing the main characters on the frontier. Setting was the defining feature in old-school Westerns. The desert often served as a character itself, and the landscape birthed a collection of metaphors and motifs: tumbleweed, boots and shotguns, to name a few.

Even though canon Western lore seems to follow the cops-and-robbers, shoot-‘em-up narrative, this is a large part of why the genre was so popular with movie audiences in the ’50s and ’60s. And while it might be marketed as a crime drama/thriller, “Hell or High Water” is the best Western I’ve seen since “True Grit.”

Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and divorced, down-on-his-luck father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) duke it out in the west Texas sun after Howard and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) rob a string of banks from El Paso to the Oklahoma border. Hamilton, close to retirement with a long southern drawl, and his Comanche deputy partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are remarkably salty throughout. The duo brings a “been there, done that” vibe to most of the chase.

Bridges plays the experienced, patient cop well, never being in too much of a hurry to do anything. But as an audience member, the minute he picks up the Howard brothers’ trail, you’re sure he’s going to get “the bad guys.” He’s got that quiet way about him, squinty but strong eyes behind his aviator blues, calm and collected amidst the chaos of catching two convicts. 

There is an intense shootout sequence in “Hell or High Water,” which is honestly one of the more intense scenes in cinema this year. Foster plays a loudmouth, quick-triggered character, with the dynamic between him and Pine really fueling the fire for the entirety of the movie.

“Hell or High Water” has enough dramatic moments spread throughout a landscape of guns and gasoline that it becomes easy to relate to the Howard brothers and their financial woes. The Howards’ humanity against Hamilton’s long arm provided a conflict that was both believable and intriguing, a tale constantly asking the audience who the real bad guy is. The movies that make us ask ourselves these questions, that begs audience members to put themselves in another’s shoes, pushing the audience members to ponder their own identity.

“Hell or High Water” left one aspect missing from the movie: there was little female representation. While Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman are both fantastic as sassy waitresses, “Hell or High Water” is a rough-and-tumble movie about “man’s work.”

Philosophical dialogue and modern day parables aside, “Hell or High Water” remains an intelligent, pistol-wielding thrill ride across the dusty Texas desert, star-studded with grade-A performances from Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges.

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