I went into Hell or High Water expecting strong No Country for Old Men & True Detective vibes. While those harsh tones are there, it unexpectedly oscillates towards levity and casual charm on multiple fronts. It’s taken me a while to unpack whether or not I think that’s a good thing…
On one hand you have the sun-dried West Texas landscape* and beautifully bleak, droning soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (See also The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). This supports the desperate acts of two brothers (Pine and Foster) seeking to upend a generational cycle of poverty and hard living—all while two lawmen (Bridges and Gil Birmingham) grapple with mortality and retirement during their attempt to end the brother’s bank robbing spree.
Shit’s real and times are tough. Aren’t we just supposed to brood and lean-in here?
Then come the one-liners, wild Texan characters, and jabbing insults between both duos. Initially this oscillation bothered me. It felt kinda cheap and more suited for television. It pulled me out of that moody intensity I had worked myself into. I found myself chuckling despite my best efforts to hold the brood.
However, as the plot progressed I began to understand what the levity was enhancing. First, it disarmed me. Plot points hit harder because I wasn’t always on the edge of my seat. Second, and probably most importantly, it created empathy for both sides. While Hell or High Water builds like any great western, there’s no dastardly villain you clearly want to see get what’s coming to them. Lines like “I love you too. Go fuck yourself” or “Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb” endear you to people you’d expect to be rooting against.
Ultimately, these shifts are why I like Hell or High Water. It’s not exactly what I expected, but it definitely has me looking forward to what screenwriter Taylor Sheridan comes up with next.