Hell Or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie.
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Buck Taylor, Gregory Cruz, Keith Meriweather.
“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation”
Scottish director David Mackenzie has steadily been making a name for himself over the years with some strong, low-key work in his native Scotland; Hallam Foe, Young Adam and, especially, Perfect Sense showcased his obvious abilities. It would seem that it was his superb prison drama Starred Up in 2013 that caught everyone’s eye, though. Hell or High Water now sees him taking his first venture onto American soil but it doesn’t hinder his abilities in the slightest. If anything, it has proven that Mackenzie is a director of genuine quality.
Plot: Needing to pay off the reverse mortgage on their recently deceased Mother’s ranche, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) target several branches of the Texas Midland Bank to raise the money. This invites the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is doggedly determined in tracking them down and putting an end to their spate of robberies.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Hell or High Water is a very different type of western. It’s one that, for obvious reasons, has been labelled as a “neo-western” but it’s contemporary nature is the very angle in which it’s able to fully explore its themes. The west has changed and the end of its way of life is fast approaching the characters of Taylor Sheridan’s dense script. He makes regular mention of the passage of time, ever changing landscapes and epoch’s; if it wasn’t the white settlers taking the land from the natives then it’s the banks foreclosing on it, forcing families into debt and desperation.
This is ultimately the motivation that drives the antagonists as other subtle hints on the state of the American economy are delivered under the guise of a crime/heist film. What we see on the surface of Hell or High Water doesn’t begin to describe the many layers underneath. And that’s ultimately what sets it apart from most other films of the genre.
As mentioned, Sheridan’s script is multilayered and he also incorporates the themes of brotherly love, loss, family responsibility and ownership which are demonstrated through crisp dialogue and genuinely dramatic (and sometimes darkly humorous) exchanges between the mismatched characters.
Speaking of which, the characters are authentically drawn while also excellently played by the three leads; Pine exudes a brooding intensity while Foster is allowed more room to explore the unhinged sociopath. Now that Bridges is getting older, he has pretty much mastered the surly old-codger routine and does so again with great authority and panache.
There’s a deliberate pace to the film, so those expecting tension filled bank robberies and high speed chases will have to be patient. These moments are provided but they come at the cost of investing your time in the characters. And it’s an investment that pays off. It also helps that it’s beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie makes good use of the photography while employing his meditative approach and showing an assured confidence in his direction.
A rich and rewarding western crime story that delivers on so many levels. It’s broad strokes signify a maturity and that maturity is tied up with a very satisfying conclusion. One of the best of 2016.
Trivia: The film’s original title was “Comancheria” named after the the region of New Mexico, West Texas where the film is set. The nearby areas to these where occupied by the Comanche before the 1860’s.