Release Date(s)2016 (February 13, 2018)
Studio(s)CBS Films/OddLot (Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are on a crime spree, robbing rural bank branches in West Texas. Tanner is newly out of prison, a criminal his whole life. Toby’s new to the trade, but he’s got a reason to take it up. It seems the bank signed his dying mother to a high-interest loan to keep the family farm afloat. Now she’s gone, and Toby is left with nothing but debt to leave his estranged children, so he’s turned to his brother for help. Bank robbery doesn’t sit too well with veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), however. Marcus is just weeks away from retirement, facing a boring end to his days on this Earth, so he’s more than happy for one last run and bites into the investigation like a dog to a bone.
Hell or High Water a bit like a more reserved and bleak West Texas version of Heat, with a dash of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Last Picture Show thrown in for good measure. It’s not so much the story that shines here, as the authenticity of these characters and their setting. The dialogue is honest, easy, and terrific, written by Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter of Sicario) who grew up in this part of the country and knows it intimately. The film was directed by a Scottsman named David Mackenzie, who you’d think would be an odd fit for this material, except that he’s a damn fine craftsman. Sometimes it takes an outsider to a place to see what’s so obvious it’s become invisible to the locals. Hell or High Water is one of the most well-cast Hollywood films in years. Bridges is absolutely superb, wearing his part like a second skin. He has an easy and entertaining chemistry with the equally good Birmingham; the two bust each others’ balls from start to finish with “friendly” racist insults in place of sharing their feelings, as stoic rural American men so often do. Foster’s become a solid character actor in his own right and he shines here. Moreover, this is – flat out – Chris Pine’s best performance in film by a wide margin. Add to all this magnificent cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, and a fine soundtrack produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the result is one of the best films of 2016.
Hell or High Water was shot digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (2.8K) using ARRI Alexa XT cameras. It was finished to a 2K Digital Intermediate, upscaled to 4K, and given Dolby Vision and HDR10 color grades for this Ultra HD Blu-ray release, which is presented in the proper 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Though this is an upscale, there’s a nice improvement in fine detailing over the 1080p Blu-ray release (reviewed previously here). It’s visible in little nuances of facial skin and hair, dirt and grass, peeling paint, worn brick; in short, all of the little textures you’d expect to see in a rural, broken-down Texas environment. Just in the film’s opening scene, as Toby and Tanner hold up their first bank, you can see every crinkle of skin around Tanner’s eyes as he glares at the bank teller through his face mask. The high dynamic range means the colors are bold and stable, biased toward the warm befitting the hot, dry plains and slightly desaturated by design, but rich reds, oranges, tans, golds, blues, and greens abound. Contrast is strong, with dark shadows. Your eyes actually react a little to the bright sunlight and glare in a more natural way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a landscape like this. There seems to be little difference between the Dolby Vision and standard HDR10 experiences here, though the former could prove little more consistent depending on your display, but you should be happy with either.
On the audio side of things, the packaging indicates that the 4K disc has English Dolby Atmos audio, but it actually only includes English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, English 2.0 Dolby Digital (Optimized for Late Night Listening), and English Descriptive Audio (in 2.0 Dolby Digital), the same as the regular Blu-ray edition. Why the Atmos is missing is anyone’s guess, but it’s definitely not here. [Editor’s Note: Our research indicates that this wasn’t production error by the studio, it was simply a packaging error. There was never meant to be an Atmos mix for this film because the director declined the chance to do one.] That’s a little disappointing in terms of expectations, but the truth is that the DTS-HD MA mix is terrific, wide and enveloping, with good clarity and fidelity. The track is atmospheric, with restrained but immersive use of score, yet has plenty of bite when the tires squeal and the bullets fly. What improvement Atmos could have made in this experience is difficult to say, but the audio is great as is. Note that you also get optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish for those who need them.
This 4K disc is a little unusual in that Lionsgate has included the same features that were found on the Blu-ray version on the actual UHD disc, among them:
- Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (13:36)
- Visualizing the Heart of America (9:28)
- Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water (12:24)
- Red Carpet Premiere (1:53)
- Filmmaker Q & A (29:51)
That isn’t a ton of material, but it turns out to have more substance than you’d expect going in. The Blu-ray version is also included in package, along with a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
When you watch a lot of films for a living, every now and again you finish one and just know immediately that it’s damn near perfect. This is one of those times. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray was quite good A/V-wise. If you love this film, though, the improvement in fine detail and HDR here makes this title worth the upgrade. Hell or High Water is an instant classic and Ultra HD is absolutely the best way to experience it. Do not miss it.
- Bill Hunt