When it comes to taste in movies, I’m a goddamn simpleton. If you could see the Top 20 list I submitted for this venture, you’d probably weep at how pedestrian it is. Prometheus is on it. PROMETHEUS. To put things in perspective, I’m just smart enough to enjoy Succession, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name its Shakespearean influences, I’d say I liked the part when Kendall rapped about his dad before you rightfully put me out of my misery.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that Hell or High Water was practically a constant amongst my fellow Pajibans who watch a great deal more movies than I do and review them with an even greater volume of cinematic acuity. Frankly, it’s a miracle the film even made it on my radar, but the fact that it did speaks to the powerful allure of a damn good story. (I’m honestly not trying to sound like Final Episode Tyrion here. I swear.) I can count on one hand the number of times a movie has so thoroughly punched through the never-ending parade of Marvel movies and color-by-number blockbusters that people I know in real life are stopping me in the grocery store to ask me if I’ve seen it.
Hell or High Water is easily at the top of that list.
If someone tries to say that mid-to-low budget adult cinemá isn’t being made anymore — Looking at you, guy who released his latest film on Netflix, a streaming service that’s cannibalizing the theater-going experience, by the way — slap this movie in front of them and point out that it’s part of a writer’s self-contained trilogy, all of which saw theatrical releases. More importantly, films like Hell or High Water are absolutely still being made. Whether or not they’ll premiere somewhere else besides a giant screen that forces you to share a room with the worst of humanity is up in the air, but click-baiting headlines aside, I’m not here to litigate Film Twitter’s current Vietnam.
In the basic verbiage of my plebeian vernacular, Hell or High Water is tight as hell. Clocking in at a lean 142 minutes, it is a badass ride from start to finish. As a dad and a freelancer, my free time is at a premium, so I was very reluctant to rewatch David Mackenzie’s neo-western this week. It’s the holidays. Do I really want to burn what precious little downtime I have to sit through a movie I’ve already seen? Especially knowing that I’m going to watch Frozen for the 800th time with my kids out of school.
Reader, this juice was worth the squeeze.
While I clearly recalled the basic plot of Hell or High Water, the second passthrough was as good as the first if not better. One of my guilty pleasures is reading Elmore Leonard westerns, and this movie scratches that particular itch perfectly. Maybe because I’m pushing 40 and reaching Peak Dad levels, but there is just something about a damn good western that makes every synapse in my brain go, “Ooh yeah, that’s the stuff,” even though I’m the least outdoorsy, unmanly sonofabitch you’ll ever meet in your life. On a visceral level, I f*cking hate rednecks and guns thanks to being surrounded by them, and yet, I loved the absolute shit out of this movie even as it made me root for what are almost undoubtedly Trumpers who will readily vote against their interests as their recession-bombed towns continue to be bled dry by wanton capitalism. It’s a very weird feeling that took a backseat as I watched two brothers do their damnedest to bloody the nose of a crooked-ass system and teach it to never come near them or theirs ever again.
Shit, for a second, a very brief second, it almost made me think about robbing banks with my own estranged, Trump-loving brother, the Tanner (Ben Foster) to my Toby (Chris Pine). But then that ending. While the two leads do the bulk of the yeoman’s work, and it is damn fine acting, Jeff Bridges chews a good amount of scenery as a surly, forced-into-retirement Texas Ranger who masks his feelings with off-colored, bigoted humor. And while I initially didn’t care much for Bridge’s character during my first watch, the second time I caught a moment of incredible vulnerability that completely slipped my memory.
Spoiler Alert for pretty much the entire third act from here on out.
After landing a crack shot across a canyon to avenge his fallen partner, Bridges triumphantly hoops and hollers while shooing away a cowpoke to go fetch his truck. The exact second the cowpoke turns his back, almost like flicking a switch, Bridges breaks into tears knowing full well that the last words he just spoke to his only friend in the world was another goddamn racist Indian joke. Toxic masculinity robbed him of a connection he so desperately needed, and now, he had to live with those consequences.
And it’s consequences that makes the final, front porch “showdown” in Hell or High Water so riveting. Despite pulling off his almost-too-clever-but-f*ck-it-it’s-a-movie heist, Chris Pine’s Toby is seemingly victorious. He accomplished his task, and his children are free from the “sickness” of poverty that plagued his family for generations, never to want for anything again. But here comes Bridges with the cold, hard truth. Granted, the grizzled Ranger mostly wants to know why all of this bloodshed had to happen, he does something I also missed on first watch. He doesn’t let Toby get away with thinking he didn’t kill anybody. Sure, Tanner pulled the trigger every time because he liked it — “It made him feel good” — but as the now-retired Ranger bluntly puts it, Toby set all of this in motion. There’ll be no peace for him, and yet Bridges finally understands why he did it.
“The things you do for your kids, huh?”
That’s how you hit a man square in the Dad Feels and carve a spot on his internet list.
This piece is part of Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010s series.
Header Image Source: Lionsgate