(4 / 5)
The West Texas portrayed in Hell or High Water is less No Country For Old Men than no country for anyone.
Based on a Black Listed screenplay by Taylor Sheridan – who also scripted Denis Villeneuve’s similarly sun-bleached Sicario – the generically titled Hell or High Water manages to escape from the long shadow of the Coen Brother’s 2007 Best Picture winner by introducing a vein of social commentary and lightness of touch without compromising the essential spareness and determinism that characterize the modern-day Western.
We first meet the brothers Howard, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) at the culmination of a tracking shot that also serves to introduce the type of world they inhabit. The low-slung buildings and deserted streets, beyond which lie nothing but highways and scrubland, suggest, to quote a recent Bob Dylan track, that this is hard country to stay alive in.
It’s also, however, a fairly easy landscape to rob banks in; even if the pickup-driving locals all do have concealed carry permits and, if given provocation, are likely to form a posse than call the police.
Hitting every branch of a local bank chain might seem simply foolhardy, but Toby and Tanner aren’t acting simply out of desperation. They need a certain amount of money and soon and they have a plan to get it; one that promises to also give them a measure of revenge on the institution that has helped keep them in poverty. As one old-timer puts it, “bank’s been robbing me for thirty years”.
Still, the pair are far from a couple of Robin Hoods. Tanner, the elder and ex-con, gets his kicks out of pistol-whipping bank managers and even Toby, who’s doing it all for his estranged sons, isn’t above sudden acts of violence; as an unfortunate pistol-wielding douche-bag at a petrol station learns to his immediate cost.
Pursuing them, albeit at a measured pace are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is only weeks away from retirement and looking for one last chase, holing up in hotel rooms and staking out possible targets, while the long-suffering Parker – whose half Native American-half Mexican ancestry provokes plenty of ornery-but-affectionate abuse from his partner – makes a point of calling him out on his bulls**t. Over the course of the film, all paths begin to inexorably converge.
From Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ string-heavy, country-inflected score to Giles Nuttgens’ clear-eyed cinematography, Hell or High Water presents us with an image of a way of life in decline. A cattle drover steering his herd across a road and away from a raging bush-fire sourly comments that it’s no wonder his kids want nothing to do with his profession.
Tanner, who’s been out of the prison a year, seems determined to take risks; like holding up another bank on the spur of the moment. This recklessness is born of fatalism rather than hubris. As he remarks to the clearer-headed Toby, “I never met nobody got away with anything, ever.”
Foster brings a wry, slightly sickly intensity to his performance as the wilder of the pair; a man of whose own mother wouldn’t ask for help from on her deathbed. “I could have come and fed those skinny cows”, he jokes; hiding his forlornness beneath wild-man affectations. Contrasting neatly with Pine’s resigned, blue-eyed-soulfulness – even when being flirted at by a friendly waitress he seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders – the two have an understated chemistry, the sense of a shared history that, though only alluded to, gives weight to the few moments of levity between them; like play-fighting out at the ranch
Bridges, meanwhile, in his best performance in years, perfectly embodies the curmudgeonly lawman who is on his way out. Sat on the hotel porch, shirtless and wrapped in a serape, he looks like an old gunfighter preparing for one final showdown. With his heft and grizzled countenance, he feels almost as hard-lived and authentic as the scene-stealing hard-as-tack waitress who serves him and Alberto their (somewhat limited) lunch: “What don’t you want?”
From the dimly lit Indian casinos where the Tanners launder their ill-gotten gains to the pit where they bury their getaway vehicles, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) has an eye for grounding pulpy detail in dusty reality. Hell or High Water manages to navigate a rock and the hard place in saying something new while remaining true to its genre.
The sheriff might be world-weary, the end both suitably bloody and ambiguous, but it goes to show that, fifty plus years after Hud, the Neo-Western still has some purpose left.