Two brothers Tanner (Ben Forster) and Toby (Chris Pine) are on a bank robbery spree. They are executing well laid the plans to get them to their goal, but not enough to attract the attention of the FBI. When the local law enforcement is tasked with capturing the elusive thieves, Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), days out from a forced retirement is assigned the case. Does the old ‘dude’ have the tricks to catch these wily young bucks?
Director David Mackenzie is a steady hand behind the lens. There’s vast, hot, grinding landscape that seems to only thrive when minerals are being tapped. Mackenzie shows the ever shrinking husks of towns and rotting shells of buildings. On asphalt or dirt, this neo western’s hulking cars are the mounts for these cowboys and bandits. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (the team behind scores for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition) belong in neo noir. Their weathered strings and delicate piano chime and bleed with the characters and their plight. Mackenzie wants the audience to stare and contemplate with the quandary and the music harmonises what the characters are feeling.
Hell or High Water has had some pretty poor comparisons to No Country for Old Men in the buzz and hype for the film. That’s not to deny that HOHW is a quality viewing, but rather that the world at large is not generating forces like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh to be unleashed upon the characters. Instead writer Taylor Sheridan is tackling American financial corruption head on. He views this cannibalistic ‘foreclosure’ capitalism as a threat to the Texan way of life. Sheridan (writer of the outstanding Sicario) immerses you in the vibrant and forthright Texan attitude. The bluntness is endearing. Marcus (Bridges) will not let Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), his half Mexican half Native American (Comanche) partner, rest without senselessly lashing him with every single racial stereotype he can. An elderly “rattlesnake” of a waitress berates Marcus and his Alberto into their order. Another waitress refuses to handover a tip that may or may not be stolen money, because half of her mortgage payment for that month. That southern courtesy, has cauterised to a salty southern disposition. In moments that you least expect though, a character will stare into the abyss of the fate that they’re making and drop dialogue that’s earth shattering. Alberto’s observations of the close proximity of white America’s genocidal history; explains the tension and hostility in these tough people. Toby talking with brutal honesty to his son, instructing him to stare head on into his flaws.
The performances are terrifically desperate. Forster really doesn’t know how to turn in a bad performance. As Tanner, the experienced bank robber and thrill seeker of the two brothers, he’s charging towards the end of their mission ready to escalate to whatever level of violence is necessary. Forster has an air of “fuck you” to whomever he encounters that’s really enjoyable because of how tense it makes every interaction. Pine is given the space for a really raw and sympathetic performance as Toby. Wounded by the death of his mother, the distance between him and his brother and helplessly indifferent to his divorce and the limited custody he has of his children. Playing viciously protective of his brother (beating a brash young thug when he flashes a gun), alongside yearning for the touch of a beauty (even if he kind of knows he’s being played), it’s an accomplished performance that is possibly the best we’ve seen fro the young star.
Bridges suits Marcus’ not so sunny disposition right to the ground. When you’re not being distracted with his Rooster Cockburn (his character in True Grit) with a “wired-jaw” approach to the accent, he wears desperation very well. Modern civilisation is just a little to ‘civilised’ for this old law man, relishing the heart starting he’s receiving by trying to foil this duo of robbers.
Hell or High Water is about the fight or flight instincts at the epicentre of the disintegration of American society. Mackenzie and Sheridan and their players dance with that relative morality gracefully.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Ben Foster … Tanner Howard
Chris Pine … Toby Howard
Jeff Bridges … Marcus Hamilton