Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.
Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.
What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.
As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.
Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.