UK Release Date: 9th September 2016
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Synopsis: Two desperate brothers in the small towns of Texas plan a series of low-cash bank robberies in an attempt to pay off a debt, with a grizzled cop in pursuit of their every move and trying to determine why they are targeting the unusual places they are targeting.
David Mackenzie first came to the attention of many cinemagoers with his intense and gritty prison drama Starred Up, starring surging actor Jack O’Connell. That film was always going to be a tough act to follow, but teaming with Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a solid move towards another quality film. Hell or High Water is a dusty, hazy crime western with a rich vein of social commentary at its heart.
Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) are two Texan brothers, who decide to rob banks in order to pay off a debt, taking only the change in the tills to make themselves tougher to trace. The brothers must pay off their debt in order to avoid foreclosure on their recently deceased mother’s ranch. The spree of robberies attracts the attention of local law enforcement and they soon find themselves pursued by veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is on the brink of retirement, but vows to take down these two before he leaves his post.
Hell or High Water is another example of the recent revitalisation of the western, but one that is a distinctly modern take on a genre usually set in the past. The film is steeped in the conventions and the iconography of the western, but yet reflects the realities and concerns of the 21st century. It is set in a version of Texas that is entirely untouched by the technology and benefits of modern society, but is all too aware of the economic turmoil that has engulfed the world. Giles Nuttgens’ breathtaking cinematography brings the environment to life with palpable dust in the air amid the buzzing of flies, conveying the lifelessness of the dusty landscapes whilst also highlighting their strange beauty.
Pine and Foster both give the best performances of their career as brothers driven to robbery by desperation. Foster’s over-enthusiastic criminal is driven by fierce family loyalty, which manifests as blind passion, which serves as a stark contrast to the pragmatism of Pine. Pine’s character is equally driven by a desire to create the best life for his family, but he has a measured control over his emotions, hardened by divorce, that enables him to make better choices. Jeff Bridges is perfect, meanwhile, as the world-weary veteran with a little too many miles on the clock. Bridges is the ideal casting choice for the role, which plays to his mumbling, slightly grumpy strengths.
The relationships between the characters have multiple layers of tension. Pine and Bridges are two wily veterans at the top of their intellectual game, engaged in a chess match battle of wits in which it is never clear who is on the morally righteous side of the argument. Foster, meanwhile, has tension with just about everyone and his wildly volatile relationships reflect his rapidly changing personality, punctuated by crazed swings in mood throughout the narrative.
As well as it’s gripping heist story, Hell or High Water has an intriguing vein of commentary running through its centre about the modern economy. There are scenes in which put-upon Texas locals seem to side with the criminals and against the crooked bankers that have ravaged their world. Pine and Foster’s characters, meanwhile, are driven by a twist on the Robin Hood narrative in which they steal from the rich in order to pay off their debts to the rich. Sheridan’s script might lack some of the operatic brutality of Sicario, but maintains all of the bristling edge.
Pop or Poop?
The western moves firmly into the 21st century, with Mackenzie’s sun-baked, smart crime thriller Hell or High Water. The trio of central performances are brought to life by committed work from Pine, Foster and Bridges at the peak of his late-career powers. Sheridan’s script bristles with anger at the state of the economy in the modern world and the finale is fought just as much with words as it is with bullets.
This is mature, adult cinema that hopefully will not be forgotten when the Academy Awards nominations are handed out at the beginning of next year.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.