Hell or High Water is still my favorite movie from 2016, but I'm not sure this 4K release was needed or necessary. While the jump to 4K makes for a more pleasant visual experience, the lack of Dolby Atmos (despite the box saying otherwise) is a real blunder on the part of Lionsgate. So with the only improvement over the Blu-ray release here being the upgraded video (albeit one that is compatible with Dolby Vision), I'm afraid this release is For (4K) Fans Only.
The best indicator of a movie's greatness is how well it holds up upon both multiple viewings and time. I first watched Hell or High Water back in 2016, and felt at the time that it was the best film among that year's Oscar contenders (Moonlight was given the trophy). Now having seen Director David Mackenzie's movie multiple times and with a nice gap (over a year) since my last viewing, I feel even more strongly that this picture was given a great disservice. It's a fantastic film.
It's not that Hell or High Water brings anything new to the table in terms of plot. We've seen dozens and dozens of movies about bank robbers and the law enforcement people trying to bring them to justice. The difference here is in character and – even more importantly – dialogue. Thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the four leads in this movie are all solid enough to have their own film. That we get four such well-developed characters in one movie is an embarrassment of riches. Watching these four actors work off each other with Sheridan's dialogue is just a wonderful treat.
Of course, Jeff Bridges is the cream of the crop here – in a performance that almost certainly would have won him an Oscar if he hadn't already nabbed one earlier this decade (the Academy likes to spread around the wealth). He plays the aging and near-retirement Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton as someone who's seen it all in his years upholding the law – but not so much that he's willing to let the bad guys get away. Chris Pine plays the more stable of the two sibling bank robbers (with Ben Foster as, the more hot-headed one) and it's a performance that shows just what Pine is capable of bringing to the table as an actor. He's picked a lot of leading man hero roles up until this point in his career (and, honestly, since this movie has come out), and it's nice to see him stretch a bit as a character who still deep down might be a good guy, but who is torn between doing the right thing and the thing that's right for his family.
I've approached this review with the assumption that most interested in the 4K version of this movie will have already seen the movie and are not in need of a recap of the plot here. However, should you be brand-new to the film, be sure to check out my original Blu-ray review which has coverage that is more plot-intensive (but still spoiler-free)
For those considering this 4K release, a big purchasing factor is going to be whether the A/V quality provides a considerable boost over the previously released Blu-ray (which is also part of this combo pack). Sadly, as you can read below, the answer for many may be "no," but that shouldn't take away from the fact that Hell or High Water is a great movie.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Hell or High Water hits 4K in an Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD combo pack that houses the 4K disc and the 50GB Blu-ray inside a black Elite keepcase along with an insert with a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of the movie (which is only redeemable in HDX on Vudu, not UHD). A slipcover (with rounded-off edges to match the shape of the keepcase) slides overtop with artwork that matches that of the case. There are no front-loaded trailers on the 4K disc, although the Blu-ray – which is the same version previously available – contains trailers for Blood Father, The Duel, Mechanic: Resurrection, and Sicario. Both disc's main menus have slightly different designs, but both feature a montage of footage from the movie with menu selections horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked; however, as always, the 4K Ultra HD disc has no region coding.
Hell or High Water was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa XT and is presented on both discs in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The 4K disc contains both Dolby Vision and HDR10 versions of the movie, although this reviewer isn't currently equipped to watch the Dolby Vision version (my TV is Dolby Vision compatible, but my Samsung 4K player is not).
Despite a few glitches, the prior Blu-ray transfer for the movie was pretty strong, so I knew this 4K transfer, taken from a 2K digital intermediate, would look pretty good. However, some of the spotty instances I caught in the Blu-ray are still slightly spotty on the 4K version. For example, the movie's opening sequence – in which our anti-heroes played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster are cruising around in their car – featured a noticeable bit of aliasing and shimmering in the background. While that moment looks much better in 4K, there's still a shimmering effect that is evident on the 4K disc. Other parts of the movie that suffered some evident noise in the background also have it slightly occurring (although, again, less obvious) in 4K.
The good news is that the HDR boost that Hell or High Water gets in 4K is worth a look, although it changes some of the movie's color palette. For example, Jeff Bridges's character's office (seen early in the movie) has a much more bluish tint than it does on the Blu-ray. Scenes with red in the background (like when Pine and Foster talk to the casino worker about half-way through the film) have a much richer, deeper contrast to them that is pleasing to the eye. Like many movies that have made the jump to 4K, this film may have an overall "darker" look in Ultra HD, depending on your particular display and setup, but it's also richer and slightly more detailed.
Dolby Vision – 4 Stars
On the Dolby Vision HDR front, the 4K presentation doesn't appear to show a drastic difference from its HDR10 counterpart. This is likely due to Giles Nuttgens's stylized cinematography where the overall palette skews heavily to earth tones with lots of yellows and browns, which is done to better reflect the desert Texan heat and climate. At the same time, contrast intentionally runs hotter than normal, which tends to make whites bloom significantly in the highlights and noticeably wash the finer details in the brightest areas, such as the clouds against a faded blue sky. However, black levels are just a tad richer with excellent shadow delineation in nighttime sequences and low-lit interiors, though it's not by a large margin to say one is better than the other. Then again, primaries appear slightly fuller in Dolby Vision. Scenes inside the casinos are particularly noteworthy as the neon lights radiate and glisten with a tad more brilliance. The second visit to the casino where Toby sits by himself watching the news is impressive where a purple light shines on his knuckles and face with a realistic glow while still maintaining accurate skin tones. In the end, fans will be happy enjoying the film in either HDR10 or Dolby Vision.
In one of the biggest packaging/marketing blunders we've seen from a studio so far this year, there is no Dolby Atmos audio on the 4K disc. This is despite the fact that the keepcase slick, the slipcover, and even the label of the disc itself claim there is an Atmos track. Even the marketing printout that I received with this Lionsgate title touts the fact that the 4K disc as Atmos. It doesn't. (Incidentally, this isn't the only mistake on the box – it once again...as it did on the Blu-ray release...mislabels the running time as 122 minutes. The movie is 102 minutes.)
What audio does the 4K disc have? The exact same featured audio as the Blu-ray: a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The 5.1 lossless track is quite solid as such tracks go (nicely mixed, aggressive during action sequences, and with no obvious glitches to report), but the lack of any audio updates over the Blu-ray means that the only reason to choose this title over the cheaper 1080p release is for the 4K transfer alone...and that may not be enough for even the biggest 4K aficionados.
In addition to the 5.1 lossless track, the 4K disc also includes a 2.0 English Dolby Digital track that is "Optimized for Late Night Viewing", a 5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital track, and an English Descriptive Audio track. Subtitles are an option in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Please note: Lionsgate has once again included all of the bonus materials from the Blu-ray on the 4K disc (most of the other studios don't do this). Of course, this naturally makes the Blu-ray disc worthless, but at least viewers won't need to jump over to the other disc to watch the bonus features, as is the case with many other 4K titles.
Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (HD 13:36) – The cast and crew discuss the film and all the various characters that make up the movie. Spoiler warning: You won't want to watch any of the bonus materials before seeing the film, but particularly this one as it both talks about and shows scenes from the movie's final act.
Visualizing the Heart of America (HD 9:28) – Director David Mackenzie and Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens talk about the look of 'Hell or High Water', including the attempt to make the movie "feel" hot, as well as the use of mostly earth tones and making the land/location itself a character in the film.
Damaged Heroes: The Performance of Hell or High Water (HD 12:24) – Another look at the incredible acting in the movie, including Director David Mackenzie's willingness to take advice from all his actors and allow them to try different ideas on camera.
Red Carpet Premiere (HD 1:53) – A brief look at premiere of the movie, which took place at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, in July of 2016.
Filmmaker Q&A (HD 29:51) – Time magazine's Sam Lansky moderates this post-viewing Q&A featuring Director David Mackenzie and stars Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, California.
As a movie, Hell or High Water is a blast...full of fun, fury, and some of the best written (and acted) dialogue you'll find in a motion picture. As a 4K Ultra HD release, however, it's a bit of a disappointment – due largely to a Lionsgate marketing department that touted an Atmos upgrade (going as far as to list it on both the marketing materials and the packaging itself) where none exists. That leaves only the 4K transfer (of a 2K digital intermediate) as the selling point here – and that's not quite enough for me to recommend this version. For (4K) Fans Only.