True sleeper hits feel like a total rarity these days. So when a film becomes one, it feels like a bit of an event. David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water was a genuine sleeper hit this summer, which could have been because the Summer of 2016 was a pretty dire time for movies, let alone completely original stories, let alone westerns. So it's pretty big that this film stuck around like it did, made the money it made, and made it all the way to the Oscars with four nominations.
And really, if I'm being honest, it's pretty much perfect. Taylor Sheridan's screenplay is as notable for what it does as it is for what it doesn't do. It doesn't give us the whole story right off the bat, doling out bits and pieces of the plot throughout the entire running time. It doesn't provide any easy answers for us or for the characters, putting those that survive the main action (this is a western crime drama, you know there's gonna be some deaths) in a morally compromised position and not giving any real sort of closure. It also doesn't stay in one genre - it's a western, but feels modern; it's a crime story, but doesn't feel like a thriller; it's a slow, thoughtful drama, but it's also funny as hell. And it is perfectly paced. Sheridan, with help from director David Mackenzie, is also really good at social commentary - I don't think I've ever seen a film that so perfectly captures the desolate desperateness of America's more rural areas while showing exactly why conservative politics that put big business first are precisely what they DON'T need. This is easily one of the best screenplays of the year, an utter delight from start to finish.
But also, if I'm being honest, there's nothing particularly new or surprising here. Just a solid story told exceptionally well. There's a lot to admire in the performances - who would have guessed Chris Pine could make stoic masculinity so compelling? Props to the casting department, who made perfect choices all the way down the line - especially in how they slowly accumulate detail until it feels like we know these characters completely. It's an incredibly smart film that doesn't "feel" smart. It's just one helluva ride.