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Finely crafted “Hell or High Water” gives a peek into West Texas life

Updated: Jun 26, 2022


On the edge of losing the Howard family farm, brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) plan to save it by robbing various branches of

a West Texas Bank.

(Click an image to scroll through the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2016; R for strong violence, profanity throughout and brief sexuality; streaming via (buy & rent) Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: "Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water"

THIS SMALL neo-Western finally gets its due.

When it arrived on Blu-ray and digital in November 2016, the 4K version was clearly missing. Then, after it received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay from actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, Lionsgate Home Entertainment reevaluated its value and slotted the film for an Ultra 4K promotion, with Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10, plus the immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack.


The 4K presentation displays a noticeable HDR upgrade in brighter highlights – especially the intentional, washed-out highlights during scenes of scorched afternoons – while the shadows are darker and controlled. The added contrast offers a much snapper picture. The color spectrum is very similar to the original Blu-ray with natural flesh tones, while the dusty warmth of the setting sun and interiors of a Native-American-operated casino in Oklahoma are richer and bolder.

Originally captured with a 2.8K digital camera (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and mastered in 2K, the upconverted 4K image has a slight uptick in sharpness, exposing what looks like film grain, but is more likely a filter effect added during post-production.

(1&2) Tanner and Toby rob the first Texas Midlands Bank of small, non-denominational, non-traceable bills. (3) "High and High Water" was filmed in New Mexico subbing for West Texas. (4) Left, Jeff Bridges plays the soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton and his Texas Ranger partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) as they consult with a local police officer after the first robbery.



Here’s the disappointment; the promised Dolby Atmos immersive soundtrack is MIA. It’s labeled on the disc jacket and Lionsgate press release, but there’s only the same six-channel DTS-HD. It’s still a strong, worthy mix, balanced between dialogue, sound effects, and a wonderful score from Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Additional tunes from the legendary Waylon Jennings, Chris Stapleton, Scott H. Biram, and Townes Van Zandt bring it down-home.

"Hell or High Water’s" storyline centers on two sets of brothers: two by blood and two by vocation.

On the edge of losing the Howard family farm, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) plan to save it by robbing various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. They demand small, non-denominational, non-traceable bills, then launder the money in a gambling casino. Toby is the law-abiding brother, who took care of their dying mother. Tanner, the dangerous hell-raiser, has only been out of prison for a year after serving a 10-year sentence.

Toby refinanced their home via a reverse mortgage to pay medical bills. But oil has been discovered on the property and the bank is going all out to repossess. The Howard boys aim to pay off the loan by whatever means possible and end a vicious cycle of poverty. Toby wants to put the property in a trust for his two sons, whom he hasn't seen for over a year because he couldn't pay child support.

Texas Rangers are called into action. Jeff Bridges plays the soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It’s his best role since winning the golden statue for "Crazy Heart." Gil Birmingham of the "Twilight" series is cast as half-Comanche and half-Mexican deputy, Alberto Parker. Marcus constantly ribs Alberto about his ethnicity, too reserved to tell him how much he appreciates and respects their tin-star brotherhood.

(1) The Texas Rangers (Marcus & Alberto) watch a rancher move his livestock away from a brush fire crossing a two-lane country road. (2) Ranger Hamilton questions a diner waitress (Katy Mixon) who got a $400 tip from Toby Howard. (3) The Howard brothers take the stolen money to an Oklahoma casino, which was transferred to chips and then into a Cashier's Check written to the bank they robbed. (4) Hamilton can't sleep after heavy drinking and still fighting depression since his wife passed away.



All of the original extras are included on the 4K disc, so there’s no need to flip between the 4K and Blu-ray. You’ll get the complete back-story to how British director David Mackenzie, director of photography Giles Nuttgens, and production designer Tom Duffield set out on an old-fashioned road trip to the wide-open spaces, looking for inspiration. They took a clear, unbiased tour of West Texas and its evaporating communities, recalled in the "Visualize the Heart of America" featurette. Surprisingly, "Hell or High Water" was filmed in the neighboring state of New Mexico.

Mackenzie and Nuttgens' visuals are striking and well-framed as the camera follows the Howard's getaway vehicle on the open highway. It's reminiscent of other great films set in Texas such as Steven Spielberg's "Sugarland Express" (1974). It also mirrors the composition of James Wong Howe's Oscar-winning photography in "Hud" (1963) with Paul Newman, and the grit of "The Last Picture Show" (1971), which starred a young Bridges.

Bonus features also include an interesting Q&A with the director and his four leading men, moderated by Time Magazine culture editor Sam Lansky. As an outsider, Mackenzie says he felt honored to make what he considers, "A snapshot of contemporary America and the fault lines running through it."

- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Toby and Tanner consult with an attorney friend, who helps sets up a trust fund for Toby's two estranged sons with money expected from monthly oil pump revenue on the family ranch. (2) Toby tries to restore his relationship with his sons living with his ex-wife. (3&4) After a botched robbery of another Texas Midlands Bank - Tanner killed a security guard and bank customer - local residences take up arms and start shooting at the Howard brothers and followed them down a rural highway. Tanner uses a high-powered automatic rifle to keep the locals at bay.


(1) The Howard brothers split up, as Tanner creates a diversion with the authorities chasing him, and Toby escaping with the money going back to the Oklahoma casino. (2) Tanner uses a high-powered rifle and from 200-yards kills Ranger Alberto Parker. (3) Toby is stopped at a Texas Ranger checkpoint. (4&5) From 500-yards Ranger Marcus Hamilton lines up his shot on Tanner Howard.


(1) Toby Howard provides the Texas Midlands Bank with two Cashiers Checks to pay off the reverse mortgage. (2) Months later retired Texas Ranger Hamilton shows up at the Howard ranch.





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