The film is centered around a string of bank robberies in Texas committed by Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his slightly psychotic brother (Ben Foster), all while being pursued by a dogged Sheriff hoping to stave off his retirement a little longer (Jeff Bridges) and his loyal partner (Gil Birmingham). This may seem to be a fairly straightforward story by this description, but the twists of morality and ideas of what the true crime is here make it anything but straightforward.
The real anchors of the film, as they should be in any character study, are the incredible performances of the cast. Chris Pine has comparatively few lines to the other three major characters, yet he manages to convey Toby's pain and stolid commitment with great skill. Ben Foster's manic glee is a real show stealer in itself, consistently keeping the audience on edge as they try to gauge how close to going over the edge he is in any given scene. Veteran actor Jeff Bridges is predictably great, finding an excellent balance in his sheriff character wherein viewers are rarely sure exactly how capable he is, both physically and mentally, while never doubting his dry wit for a second. Gil Birmingham has the least meaty part to work with, but finds an enjoyable and surprisingly beloved chemistry between himself and Bridges. The actors make viewers care about both pairs on either side, making this the first film I would say that truly makes you dread when these two opposing forces inevitably meet. Many claim it, this one owns it.
While the performances were undeniably great, it will ultimately be the vivid cinematography that sticks with viewers long after the credits roll. Opening with a 360-degree pan of a small town in the Midwest, we are immediately plunged into this world. The dilapidation is apparent as the camera shows graffiti-soaked walls, vandalism, and general disrepair swamping most of what we see until the bank comes back into the shot. Now we see the bank with new eyes; it is no longer just a bank that we suspect is about to be robbed, we now know it is for some reason the only clean, well-kept building in the surrounding area. This helps key viewers in on the central theme of the film before a word of dialogue is uttered or a single scene transition takes place. From a film lover's perspective, it is breathtaking.
Moving beyond the opening, there is much more to appreciate here. The wide vistas and blue-yellow color palette of this part of the country is on full display here as Director David Mackenzie never shies away from long, establishing shots of the quiet surroundings. Masterful use of angles accentuates the themes of the film in subtle ways; as the brothers discuss their actions, a low-angle shot is used to give them a sense of power, yet all the while a windmill looms over them, continuously turning its spokes, and serves to underline the idea that the action of the film ultimately will not change anything.
Sound is not without purpose here, either. Most of the film's sound stays within the diegesis, helping to establish a sense of place within the world. This leads to many quiet moments where the creaking of equipment or the rustling of grass is all that exists to your ear. In addition to rooting viewers, this lack of excessive dramatic flair helps to feed directly into one of the films main themes; that nothing we see here will affect anything. Naturally, if nothing we are witnessing will serve any pretense of changing the problems we see for the better, what would be the point of dressing it up with a sweeping, dramatic score? It would only be dishonest, and dishonesty is best left to the banks.
At the end of the day, Hell or High Water offers a simple tale told complexly, presented beautifully, arranged painstakingly, and paid for happily. With a few Oscar-worthy performances from the principle actors, incredible visuals, and some heady themes of morality, this film easy ranks among 2016's top releases. Come Hell or High Water, make sure you check it out.