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Let’s Get Reel: Hell or High Water

Camryn Steward ’17, Movie Columnist

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At its core, Hell or High Water is a Western, and a very good one at that, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for something else entirely. Set in modern day West Texas, Hell or High Water doesn’t have cowboys on horseback chasing after hijacked trains or bands of cookie-cutter outlaws and its pivotal moment isn’t a Mexican standoff in the town Saloon, but it does have outlaws and lawmen and everyone wears cowboy hats.

The movie follows brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, during a bank-robbing crime spree while Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, and his partner chase after them. The reason that Hell or High Water feels both familiar and new is that it is a neo-Western; one that takes core concepts from classic Western films, but goes to great lengths to set itself in a modern environment. One of the best examples of this comes very early in the film when Bridges and his partner are having a conversation about the first bank robbery. In the scene, both men are wearing their Texas Ranger uniforms, complete with matching cowboy hats and bolo ties, but Bridges’ is smoking a vape. It’s easy to miss, but it’s a clear and brilliant indicator of the setting.

Later, the Rangers are chasing down leads and they come across a herd of cattle being corralled away from a large wildfire. When Bridges asks the overseeing herder if he started the fire, the man scoffs and says no, but as he turns to leave he says that with days like these he can understand why his kids don’t want to do what he does.

Both these scenes seem strange when they occur and it’s easy to overlook them in favor of the more familiar outlaws-and-lawmen setting, but the clever homages to classic Westerns and the subtle indicators of the modern environment set Hell or High Water apart from the rest of the pack and make it one of the best movies of the year.

Brilliantly set, impeccably filmed, and both well-written and well-acted, Hell or High Water is more than a Western, it’s a meditation on Westerns past and a conversation-starter about where the genre can go in the future.

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Let’s Get Reel: Hell or High Water