Director: David Mackenzie
Stars: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster
The economics of what keeps the rich rich and the poor poor often seem like a rigged game, especially in our present financial climate. It is with intense anger at this capitalist monopoly that David Mackenzie’s modern Western Hell Or High Water finds relevancy. Hell, it’s mottled right into the ink of Taylor Sheridan’s dry screenplay. There’s as much white-knuckled frustration here as there was in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, only here it is channeled through age-old genre tropes and reconstituted in the form of a good ol’ dusty Texan crime drama.
Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are on a spree, knocking off different branches of a small bank chain in West Texas, yo-yoing back to the family ranch after each heist in order to dispose of the evidence. They’re making a pretty good job of it too, despite the odd unforeseen setback. Yet while this may on first approach seem like little more than a high stakes adrenaline outlet for two boys from the wrong side of the tracks, there transpires to be a more pressing and humanising deadline behind their gambit. And more to the boys as well.
Naturally there’s a dogged old law officer riding their heels, here taking the form of Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges with more than a touch of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men about him). Sheridan’s script flaunts genre tropes likes a badge of honour, so yes, Hamilton is just days from retirement, the locals wherever you land are back-talkin’ characters and, this being Texas, just about everyone is carrying a gun. It’s even got Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on soundtrack duty.
Yet the film happily works all of these things to its advantage. It’s tone is lighter than your usual, making it a pleasant, breezy watch. It plays on the viewer’s familiarity with its predecessors, kindling a sense of kinship with the material tinged with nostalgia for the glories of others. It’s often funny – though in no real sense a comedy film – but this relative lightness is important, because underneath there’s a sobering and pessimistic worldview at work, one which sees the banks and their ilk as enduring gods on Earth. Man is temporary, but the system will keep him in check while he’s here.
It’s also a damn fine buddy movie, not least because there are two sets of buddies to enjoy spending time with. Toby and Tanner may be a rather typical duo (Toby is the straight one seemingly led astray; Tanner the wildcard with a stretch of prison behind him), but their brotherly love feels worn in. Foster is a tried and tested character actor and clearly relishes playing a little large here, but it is Pine who truly impresses. This is probably the best thing he’s appeared in, and Hell Or High Water earns him some much-needed respect.
On the other side of things, Hamilton is not alone either. He brings with him his partner, the beleaguered Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham); a half-Mexican, half-Native American ranger who’s no stranger to the kind of redneck prejudice such a cocktail will provoke in the white man. Mackenzie’s film may direct most of its rancor at the money lenders, but it saves just enough to carry a healthy streak of indignation on Parker’s behalf. He suffers the outmoded jokes volleyed at him by Hamilton with patience and dignity. It helps that the film is wise enough to acknowledge that Hamilton’s teasing is its own form of affection. This is a film with two sets of brothers at its heart, and scenes of Hamilton and Parker’s verbal sparring are complimented with sunset shots of the outlaws play-fighting outside in all that country.
Bridges tears this all up with his usual charm and world-weary swagger and could conceivably be looking at a Best Supporting Actor nod for his efforts, but what impresses is the consistency of the cast all round. Even the day-players who pepper the movie as waitresses, casino hookers, bank managers and steakhouse owners land with a uniform sense of purpose, each one memorable, each one feeling in step with the overall tone of the piece. Mackenzie’s a seasoned director, but Hell Or High Water finds him treading into somewhat unfamiliar territory, yet you wouldn’t have guessed it looking at the end product. To his considerable credit, he’s fashioned one of the better modern Westerns produced this side of the aforementioned No Country For Old Men.
That the film is less ruthless perhaps keeps it from greatness. In the grand scheme of things there are far meaner variants out there (see last year’s Sicario for starters; also scripted by Sheridan). Rarely does Hell Or High Water live up to its apocalyptic title. The one scene in which it does is one of it’s least integral, plot-wise, but most affecting, in which Hamilton and Parker encounter a group of cowboys steering their herd away from a fire sweeping the plains. There’s nothing the rangers can do for those men; they’re where the system wants them. Quietly, this wholly unnecessary scene becomes one of the film’s most important and one is left to wonder to what end is it worth trying to beat the system to get yourself out of the hand you’re dealt.