Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Just one more job and then I’m out. So much of “Hell or High Water” is so familiar that to hear fans and critics talk about its ingenuity may cause you to think you’ve stumbled into the wrong theater.
Yet there you are, watching Chris Pine rob banks with his deadbeat brother (Ben Foster) while trying to stay a step ahead of the law (Jeff Bridges). You’ve seen this movie before, even if this is a slightly better version of it. I can’t say this offers much more or much better than anything you’ve seen before, either.
“Hell or High Water” is not “No Country for Old Men.” It is not “There Will be Blood” and it isn’t even as good looking as “Slow West.” When it does finally venture into new territory, it’s compelling, yet brief. Bridges, a grizzled sheriff, still has the false hope that died in Pine many years ago.
Their face-to-face encounter is one of the few things truly compelling moments “Water” offers and it doesn’t give enough glasses of it to quench my thirst. As someone who loves westerns, modern or otherwise, that doesn’t keep me from digging what “Water” has to offer. It’s just tired.
Pine and Foster go from bank to bank to try to get enough money together to save their family’s home from the bank. Who’s the real bandit here, right? Pine plays the white-hat cowboy while Foster gets the black-hat ex-convict who frankly is just showing up with the hopes he gets to murder someone in the process. Again, stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The cinematography is splendid. Yes, there are some tense moments and some great action sequences, but don’t we expect that at this point? I walked into “Hell or High Water” expecting a solid movie, but I hoped for a great one. I didn’t get it. Perhaps that’s on me for having high expectations.
That apparently didn’t hurt the film when it came to award season. Better westerns have tumbled away into the brush without so much as a flicker, but “Hell or High Water” managed to stick around. What could have been a compelling study on fate instead feels alarmingly procedural.
In the end, the bleakest part about a very bleak movie is a young man accepting his fate while an old man refuses to accept his. That’s unfortunately the beginning, the middle and the end of the commentary on our modern times in this good, not great modern western.