Review of: Hell or High Water

Reviewed by:
On December 7, 2016
Last modified:December 7, 2016


Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger chasing bank robbers Chris Pine and Ben Foster in this lean, craggy mix of American outlaw drama, modern western, and chase thriller set against a West Texas landscape.

Hell or High Water (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is as good an American drama as you’ll see this year. Jeff Bridges stars as a Texas Ranger on the trail of a pair of bank robbers and his playfully crusty performance as a laconic frontier lawman on the verge of retirement gives an easy, laid back quality to a film that is otherwise riled up by a sense of betrayal. This is a 21st century version of American outlaw cinema that first took root during the depression and blossomed in films like They Live by Night and Bonnie and Clyde, reframed by the mortgage crisis, predatory lending, and cold corporate greed. So while Bridges centers the film with his good old boy comments and frontier wiles, Chris Pine and Ben Foster drive it as brothers on a crime spree targeting branches of a specific regional bank for small bills and relatively low hauls from the cashier trays.

hellhighwaterPine is Toby Howard, divorced and unemployed and struggling to save his family farm from foreclosure, and Foster is Tanner, the bad seed criminal who provides the experience and the aggression to Toby’s master plan. Pine puts his charm in low gear, playing pensive and conflicted and determined behind those blues eyes (no Captain Kirk bravado here), and gives the explosive emotional scenes over to Foster, who gleefully terrorizes bank clerks and bystanders with such ferocity you believe he might just shoot someone to prove a point. Or simply to let off a little steam. Toby is no pacifist but he clearly blanches at the violence inherent in their campaign when Tanner lets his hair-trigger anger loose with a little too much glee at each heist. But not enough to put the brakes on a plan that is headed down a bumpy road that may dead end before the journey is over.

British filmmaker David Mackenzie directs from an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and they manage to split audience sympathies between the about-to-retire Ranger and the bank-robbing brothers while constantly reminding us of the collateral damage of the spree. It makes for a lean, craggy mix of outlaw western, chase thriller, and rage-against-the-machine drama set against a West Texas landscape of endless plains, depressed small towns, and empty highway strip malls. In this sun-blanched world, a land both grand and depressing, the brothers come off as folk heroes to the civilians, ripping off the business that foreclosed on so many farmers and businesses. Don’t mistake them for modern Robin Hoods—they aren’t spreading the wealth, merely looking out for family—but in a culture of hopelessness, they are as close as some of these folks will get.

Blu-ray and DVD with an audience Q&A with director David Mackenzie and actors Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Gil Birmingham, the featurettes “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water,” and “Visualizing the Heart of America,” and red carpet footage. The Blu-ray features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

Hell Or High Water [DVD + Digital]
Hell Or High Water [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD]

dontthinkWhether you call Don’t Think Twice (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) a hilarious drama or a serious comedy, it is a bittersweet story of frustrated dreams and difficult passages of funny people in a pitiless business. Mike Birbiglia, a standup comedian and “This American Life” contributor turned filmmaker, writes, directs, and co-stars in the film as Miles, founder and de facto leader among equals of the six-person New York comedy troupe The Commune, which has been performing their brand of improvisational comedy for 11 years when word comes that their storefront theater space is closing. Miles is a veteran who has watched fellow members go on to the holy grail of improv (the barely fictionalized late night comedy show “Weekend Live”) and is still waiting for his shot as he approaches 40. But he’s no more the protagonist than Keegan-Michael Key’s ambitious Jack, who has a tendency to jump out of the ensemble and grab the spotlight in showboating bits, or Gillian Jacobs’s Samantha, who is fearless on stage but chokes when she and Jack are invited to audition for “Weekend.” It’s about all of them, along with the retiring Allison (Kate Micucci), the reflexively self-disparaging Bill (Chris Gethard), and the neurotic Lindsay (Tami Sagher), the “rich girl” whose parents support her comedy dreams while everyone else hustles day jobs and part-time gigs.

So yes, they resent Lindsay, and they resent Jack, and there’s a certain disdain for Miles’s habit of sleeping with the impressionable young women of his improv class, and so on. And yet when they get onstage, they put their baggage aside and “just say yes,” jump-starting skits inspired by audience comments and adding new ideas and characters on the spot, always building and always supporting. Birbiglia’s balancing act is impressive in how it embraces the complexities and contradictions of human behavior in the crucible of improvisational comedy, which is built on creativity and trust and generosity, and show business, strewn with ego and competitiveness and the need for attention and affirmation. With Jack off to TV and the theater closing, they have to evolve or move on, an anxious transition that brings out the less attractive emotions previously buried under the common cause of their improv credo. The drama is honest without getting nasty and it’s genuinely funny but not at the expense of the characters. Well, not entirely anyway. Birbiglia likes these characters and the cast embraces their foibles. Probably because they too can relate. And for anyone not acquainted with an insider’s appreciation of the art of improv, Don’t Think Twice offers a crash course that makes the setting both very specific and surprisingly universal; you don’t have to be a theater major to relate to the group dynamics and conflicts of this longtime group.

Blu-ray and DVD with three featurettes and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

Don’t Think Twice [DVD]
Don’t Think Twice [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD]

interventionThe Intervention (Paramount, DVD) of this indie spin on The Big Chill is a marriage intervention instigated by Annie (Melanie Lynskey), who has invited the old college gang for weekend out to back up confrontation of Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza), an eternally bickering couple in a toxic marriage, to divorce, the kids be damned. It’s the directorial debut of Clea Duvall and it’s very much an actors’ showcase: eight characters (Clea DuVall, Natasha Lyonne, Ben Schwartz, and Jason Ritter fill out the old friends and Alia Shawkat is the twentysomething newcomer in the mix) with heavy baggage doing their best to ignore the weight. The sometimes heavy-handed script hasn’t many surprises and the issues are familiar and, in a couple of cases, pretty easy to overcome.

But Duvall favors the performances—she wrote the central role for Lynskey, the hidden treasure of American independent cinema—and the chemistry of the ensemble. Lynskey is brilliant as a neurotic busybody who has turned denial of her own issues into the art of distraction and her antics are enabled by the very friends who wonder if they should stage an intervention for her. She’s both funny and heartbreaking, drowning her insecurities with day drinking while trying to steer the weekend as it (inevitably) careens from one combustion to another. Duvall keeps it all moving along with lively direction, finding humor in the discomfort and the conflict. Her direction is more nuanced and revealing than her writing and it makes what could be another theater piece on screen into a funny and painful and entertaining getaway with characters who have the capacity to surprise us even of their problems do not.

Features a blooper reel and a music video by Tegan and Sara.

The Intervention [DVD]

It is also streaming on Amazon Prime.

oneeyedjacksOne-Eyed Jacks (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the only film directed by Marlon Brando, had been relegated to the public domain bins of home video until it was rescued from PD purgatory with a restoration by Universal Pictures and The Film Foundation from the original 35mm VistaVision negative. The stunning new presentation reveals a vital western with vivid primal imagery, themes of friendship and betrayal out of Peckinpah (whose original screenplay was rewritten), and jagged drama honed with Method exercises and improvisation. The characters are violent and explosive and simmering with anger and resentment behind false smiles, yet are also often dwarfed by the landscape, both the desert hills and the pounding ocean of the beach. Brando has a surly outlaw charm, mercenary but magnetic, and his confusion of vengeance and love and brutality and generosity makes for a more complex character than appears on the surface, and his scenes with Karl Malden, the best friend and father figure turned betrayer, simmer with lies and resentment.

Criterion presents the 4K restoration on Blu-ray and DVD with a new introduction by Martin Scorsese, new video essays, and excerpts from voice-recordings director and star Marlon Brando made during the film’s production, plus a fold-out insert with a new essay by film critic Howard Hampton.

One-Eyed Jacks [DVD]
One-Eyed Jacks [Blu-ray]

exterminating-angelThe Exterminating Angel (Criterion, Blu-ray) – Luis Bunuel’s devastatingly funny 1962 satire is a surreal farce about a dinner party that never ends: the upper-class guest can’t seem to leave the drawing room and over the course of their self-imposed house arrest they devolve into a state of primitive survival. Bunuel never even attempts a rational explanation; the whole thing has the logic and tone of a dream with allegorical echoes. It is savagely funny.

Previously available from Criterion on DVD, it debuts on Blu-ray with the same supplements: the feature-length 2008 documentary “The Last Script: Remembering Luis Bunuel” featuring screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and director Juan Luis Bunuel, video interviews with actor Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein, and the trailer, plus a booklet with an essay by film scholar Marsha Kindler and a print interview with Bunuel.

The Exterminating Angel [DVD]
The Exterminating Angel [Blu-ray]

Also new and notable:madmaxoctane

Mad Max: High Octane Collection (Warner, Blu-ray) is really the ultimate Mad Max special edition. It includes the Mad Max: Fury Road / Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome (Warner, Blu-ray) double feature of the original theatrical release and Miller’s preferred B&W version of the film (which is also available separately) packaged up with the original Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1987), along with a 4K UltraHD copy of Mad Max: Fury Road and bonus discs featuring the previously-available feature-length documentary The Madness of Max (on the making of the first film, DVD only) and a new documentary on the making of the Road Warrior. This set just arrived so I haven’t had a chance to do more than scratch the surface but it’s shaping up to be the box set of the season. Review to come.

bourneultThe Bourne Ultimate Collection (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) boxes up the new release (which is also available separately) Jason Bourne (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) with the first four Bourne movies: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), all starring Matt Damon, and The Bourne Legacy (2012), which promotes supporting actor Jeremy Renner to the leading role. The six-disc set also includes a DVD-only bonus disc with 11 featurettes and a music video, plus an Ultraviolet digital copy of all five movies and a free bonus digital film (from a limited selection; we’re not talking the dream of Universal’s crop here). It’s all in a bookleaf digipak with each disc in a paperboard sleeve.

tolivedieTo Live and Die in L.A.: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), William Freidkin’s sleek, bleak 1985 thriller about a rogue Secret Service agent (William L. Petersen) and the ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe), is a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller. Newly remastered from the original negative (supervised by Friedkin) for this new special edition. Review to come.

Rabid: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), David Cronenberg’s sophomore feature, is another ingenious low budget horror film that turns disease into an evolutionary hiccup. Marilyn Chambers (yes, that Marilyn Chambers) stars. Newly remastered for this new special edition. Review to come.

Classics and Cult:

Children of Divorce (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD)
Phantasm: Remastered (Well Go, Blu-ray+DVD)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – 30th Anniversary (Dark Sky, Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road / Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome
(Warner, Blu-ray)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Amazon Limited Edition Box Set) (Warner, Blu-ray)
Howards End (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Quiet Earth (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

TV on disc:

Greenleaf: Season One (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
Scream Queens: The Complete First Season (Fox, DVD)
Zoo: Season Two (Paramount, DVD)
Beauty and the Beast: The Final Season (Paramount, DVD)
The Secret Agent (2016) (Acorn, DVD)
The Shannara Chronicles: Season One (Paramount, Blu-ray)

More new releases:

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD)
The Hollars (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD)
Other People (Wolfe, DVD)
Kicks (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Call of Heroes (Well Go, Bluy-ray, DVD)
Heart of a Dog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Phantasm: Ravager (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD)
Dead Rising: Endgame (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD)
Eliminators (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Devil’s Dolls (Scream Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Unspoken (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Never Open the Door (Maltauro, Blu-ray, DVD)
In Order of Disappearance (Magnet, Blu-ray, DVD)
For the Love of Spock (FilmRise, Blu-ray, DVD)
Author: The JT Leroy Story (Sony, DVD)
I Am Bolt (Universal, DVD)

Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger chasing bank robbers Chris Pine and Ben Foster in this lean, craggy mix of American outlaw drama, modern western, and chase thriller set against a West Texas landscape.
  • 4.5
    editor rating