Jeff Bridges is not one of my favorite actors. I think of him as a real life version of the slacker he played in “The Big Lebowski.” But, to me, his sin of sins was mumbling his way through John Wayne’s Roster Cogburn part in the 2010 remake of “True Grit.” So, Valeta and I went to his new movie, “Hell or High Water,” with low expectations, but we were so impressed, we gave it a score of 90. It wasn’t just us. Forty-seven reviewers gave it an average score of 88, with 11 perfect scores of 100, and 683 users gave it an average score of 81.
So, just see it. There’s no controversy, no condescending critics‒except Tom Hiddleston of Time Out London, who gave the movie a score of 60 and sniffed, “A film with a fistful of memorable moments‒most of them involving Bridges hurling insults at people‒but not a great deal new to say.” Despite his snide review, he proudly displays a photo of himself with Jeff Bridges on his website. In some of his other critiques of the cinema arts, Hiddleston gave the classic “Churchill” a score of 49, while he gave the cartoon “Captain Underpants” an 88.
“Hell or High Water” displayed an anomaly I see about once a year, an “inversion” in the scores, where top 5 reviewers liked the movie a lot, but not as much as eight known bad reviewers who gave out perfect 100 point scores: Bill Goodykoontz (-15) of the Arizona Republic (-16); the infamous Richard Roeper (-27) of the Chicago Sun Times (-31); Chris Nastawaty (-8) of Entertainment Weekly (-26); David Edelstein (-20) of New York Magazine (-23); Jeannette Catsoulis (no rating because I track only the bottom 3 worst reviewers of the New York Times ( 30), and it has three reviewers worse than her); Steve Persall (-23) of the Tampa Bay Times ( 25); bottom 10 record holder Joe Morgenstern ( 60) of the Wall Street Journal (-64); and Walter Addiego (-3) of the San Francisco Chronicle (-22), who actually explained what causes score inversions: “What [director] MacKensie has crafted here is a crowd pleaser with undeniable art house elements.” And that is the moral of this story: being artsy matters more than the movie itself.
Bad critics love artsy Jeff Bridges, but hate he man Bruce Willis. Their movie scores are easily understood by starting with a baseline merit only score for a movie, and then adding or subtracting for three biases: the actor bias (Jeff Bridges +10, Bruce Willis -10, John Malkovich +10, Keanu Reeves -10, Matt Damon +10, Mel Gibson -10, etc.); the subject matter bias (westerns 10, oppressed groups +10, action -10, post apocalyptic +10 ‒ “COVID-19 coming to a theater near you,” etc.); and finally the pedigree bias (art flick +10, big studio -10, foreign +10, etc.).
In “Hell or High Water” the biases add up to +10: Jeff Bridges +10, western -10, and art flick +10. Thus, I would reduce the 100 point scores of the known bad reviewers to 90 points for the merit only movie score‒exactly where our top 5 reviewers James Berardinelli (88) and Roger Moore (88) scored the movie. The movie is great (90-100), but not perfect.very
“Hell or High Water” starts with two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, scoring a small haul in a branch bank robbery done Bonnie and Clyde style. They successfully continue their the low rent robberies in a lengthy blue collar crime spree. Even the codgy, old Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) cannot catch them because of their clever ploys, which include robbing Texas only banks to stay out of FBI jurisdiction. Along with star quality acting from Bridges‒who is in his wheelhouse, since the sheriff himself is somewhat of a slacker‒the movie also stars the West Texas panorama, towns and locals used as extras. Visualize the scene featuring the locals‒in their trucks with racks of loaded rifles‒when a shoot out erupts outside a bank in downtown Muleshoe, Texas (a real town, look it up). This movie is very pro Second Amendment.
The best dialog occurs when Bridges and his sarcastic Hispanic deputy are hanging out in a diner across the street from the bank they suspect will be robbed next, and they make the mistake of trying to order a steak dinner from a grouchy 60 year old West Texas waitress, who is obviously a real townie. The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay for the 2015 hit, “Sicario” (Metacritic score 82), a very good war on drugs movie.
We saw “Hell or High Water” twice and liked it even better the second time. When you watch it, determine if you see the same movie that bottom 10 reviewer Joe Morgenstern saw: “By turns funny, elegiac and thrilling, it’s a tale of brotherhood and family that takes in the harsh beauty of the land, the elusive nature of right and wrong and the quirky delights of human connections in a time of bewildering change.”
Or if you see the movie two top five reviewers saw, “One of the best heist pictures in years, about brother bank robbers out to save the family farm” (Roger Moore). “A new arrangement of a familiar theme, [whose] changes make it fresh and enjoyable” [and where] “the Texas terrain, as bleak and barren as any landscape this side of Tombstone, is a constant presence, as forceful a character as any played by a human actor” (James Berardinelli).
This is a great movie that should be seen uninterrupted on the biggest screen in your house when you’re fresh‒because the movie does have an art flick’s extended silent pauses and meaningful facial shots that can be downright soporific. That said, “Hell or High Water” is also a “crowd pleaser” meant for movie low lifes, like us.