Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Mackenzie
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey, Buck Taylor, Katy Mixon, Debrianna Mansini.
This blend of heist movie and contemporary western comes from British director David Mackenzie (the violent prison film Starred Up), who gives us a rather bleak picture of an economically depressed dustbowl area in rural Texas, where family farms are falling into disuse and disrepair and the roads are lined with signs offering debt relief.
When the bank threatens to foreclose on their family farm, the Howard brothers turn to robbing banks to try and reverse their fortunes and amass the $40,000 they need to pay off their debts. Tanner (Ben Foster, from Inferno, etc) is a volatile career criminal recently released from prison while younger brother Toby (Chris Pine, from the rebooted Star Trek series, etc) is a divorced father of two and a former gas company worker. They feel that the bank has cheated them out of their land just as oil has been discovered on it, so they choose to rob only local branches of that bank as a form of payback. They choose small rural branches, and strike early in the morning when there are few customers. They clean out only the tellers’ tills, making the money harder to trace.
On their trail though is dogged and cynical veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is on the verge of retirement. Hamilton sets out to try and nab the robbers before they can commit their next audacious crime. He has a wonderfully offbeat dynamic with his long suffering partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham, from the Twilight Saga, etc) who is of mixed Cherokee-Mexican heritage, and is the butt of many politically incorrect jibes from Hamilton. The pursuit takes the pair on a journey that has unexpected consequences.
Written by former actor turned scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan (the superb war on drugs thriller Sicario) Hell Or High Water is another gritty and violent example of Texan noir exploring the lawlessness of the modern American frontier, and it owes a debt to the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers. The film will remind audiences of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (which also featured Foster), Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice and the Oscar winning No Country For Old Men. This is a world in which good people are driven to do bad things for good reasons, and this adds a nice moral ambiguity to the material.
Mackenzie brings an outsider’s jaundiced perspective to the grim setting. As the film moves towards its inevitable showdown, Mackenzie suffuses the film with a slowly developing air of dread, which is enhanced by the moody and foreboding score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The film has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Swimfan, etc), who brings a sort of rugged poetry to the screen. He uses the widescreen effectively to capture the wide open spaces, the sense of isolation, the near empty towns, and the desolate landscapes of rural Texas. Some of the scenes were shot in the same small Texan towns where Peter Bogdanovich shot the 70s classic The Last Picture Show, which starred a much younger Bridges.
At its heart though Hell Or High Water is a character study and an exploration of masculinity and complex male relationships. We get the contrast between the two brothers, who are forced into a life of crime by economic circumstances, but we also get insights into Marcus, who expresses his relationship to Alberto through insults and racist putdowns. Marcus and Alberto develop a prickly chemistry that hides a deep respect for each other’s abilities.
Sheridan has created three dimensional and well rounded characters here, brought to life by a superb cast. A laid back Bridges brings a world weary quality, a wry and droll humour, and a sense of fatal resignation to his performance that seems perfectly suited to his reading of Hamilton, a character that has become a staple of his repertoire of late. He relishes the role here and gives a wily and grounded performance that is amongst his best work. However he has a tendency to mumble his dialogue which renders much of what says hard to understand.
Pine and Foster are also very good as the brothers and they manage to elicit sympathy from the audience. Pine brings a decency to his role as the introverted and quiet Toby, while Foster, who excels in playing unlikeable characters, brings a dangerous edge to his performance as Tanner, who is something of a loose cannon. Both Pine and Foster have charm to spare and they develop a palpable chemistry.
Well crafted and beautifully shot, Hell Or High Water deserves to be considered a minor modern classic of the American crime genre.