Blog / Book of the Month / Hell or High Water (2016) David Mackenzie - Mini Movie Review

Hell or High Water (2016) David Mackenzie - Mini Movie Review

Hell or High Water (2016) David Mackenzie - Mini Movie Review

Hell or High Water (2016) Directed by: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan (Screenplay) Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Run Time: 102min Rated: 14A (Canada) R (MPAA) for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality

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Living for today

Set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, Hell or High Water is a film about two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), on an armed robbery spree in West Texas. The brothers hold up Texas Midland Bank branches garnering the attention of the Texas Rangers who dispatch partners Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to apprehend the robbers. With Hamilton, the lead investigator, nearing retirement and the Texas setting, the film is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men (2007) only without the Cormac McCarthy poeticism or the Coen Brothers’ ability to create riveting high tension. In Hell or High Water Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger Hamilton is a lot like U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn which he played in the Coen Brothers’ film True Grit (2010). In a way, some of these similarities to popular Coen Brothers films make David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water come across as derivative, yet in another way they provide a comfortable vehicle to tell this story. 

Trailers for the film make it look like a sort of Robin Hood story of men stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but when watching the film itself it becomes clear the brothers are “the poor” and what is really going on is a plot to rob the banks and gather enough money to stave off foreclosure on a mortgage owned by the same bank. The moral question in Hell or High Water is one people have struggled with for centuries: Is it okay for the poor to steal from the rich? Christians will want to remember that coveting is a sin and there are no amendments to the 7th Commandment that make theft permissible even if the victim has more than others.

One of the film’s strongest elements is the relationship between the brothers and the parallel relationship between the two Texas Rangers. Some of the best scenes are the quiet interactions between the character pairs. One memorable moment comes when Hamilton ribs his partner Parker about his choice of television viewing as they spend the night in a motel. Parker is watching a televangelist and Hamilton comments that the TV preacher “wouldn't know God if He crawled up his pant leg and bit him …” He continues by berating Parker, who is part Native American, asking why he’s even watching a televangelist at all, to which Parker quips back, “I’m Catholic!”

Overall, the film deals with how a person lives their life in a broken world with no view toward eternity even though death lurks around every corner. This may remind Christians of Jesus’ parable of the rich man who builds barns to store the abundance of his possessions. Looking at his cleverness, the rich man says to his soul, ““Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:19-21). In Hell or High Water one brother, Tanner, is just along for the ride only living for the day. Meanwhile the other brother, Toby, justifies the robberies as a way to help his children break the cycle of poverty. He does all of this without giving them a grounding in the Christian faith. The viewer who stops to consider this quandary may ask, ‘isn’t that just kicking the can down the road?” One day those kids will be old and they will die, or they may die suddenly in an unexpected way and if they have no faith in Christ what will they have? Toby and Tanner, and Toby and his kids, are spiritually blind guides, and as Christ says, “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14)

In addition to its nomination in the Best Picture category Hell or High Water is also nominated in the categories of Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Adapted Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan), and Film Editing.

Rev. Ted Giese is pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran, Reporter and KFUOam; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!