Hell or High Water (2016)

In Hell or High Water, director David Mackenzie rocks the genre in an elegiac Texan Western, a heist tale starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges.

O Brother

by Alexa Dalby

Hell or High Water

Though it’s directed by a Scot – David Mackenzie, lauded for Starred Up and now resident in the US – Hell or High Water is rooted deep in the badlands of hot, dusty and depressed, redneck West Texas. With a screenplay by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan, the dialogue crackles with one-liners and not a word wasted.

It follows two brothers Toby (an unshaven and desperate Chris Pine, Star Trek) and violent Tanner (Ben Foster, Warcraft), novices on a bank-robbing spree in a post-2008-crash, debt-ridden environment, where rapacious banks are seen as the villains Bonnie and Clyde-style. The brothers couldn’t be more different but their relationship is close. Toby, whose idea it is, has planned this simply to raise the cash to prevent foreclosure on the mortgage of the family farm his mother left him in her will and to pay maintenance for his family to his estranged wife. Tanner is a recently released ex-convict, impulsive and unpredictable, who in theory has the criminal experience to bring to the party.

Their modus operandi is to hit small-town branches of the same local bank and take only a few thousand dollars at a time, the rationale being to rob the bank that’s going to foreclose on them and pay back the mortgage with the bank’s own money. It’s obvious even to their victims (bank teller Dale Dickey) that they’ve never done this before. Unfortunately for the success of their scheme, they come up against wily old Texas Ranger Marcus (veteran star Jeff Bridges), who’s just one case away from retirement, seen it all before, sees the pattern and sets out to make the pair his swansong arrests. His sidekick is long-suffering native American/Mexican Alberto (Comanche Gil Birmingham, The Twilight Saga), with whom he has a needling, racist banter that hides an underlying affection.

So far so genre. But Hell or High Water takes the heist genre and turns it into poetry. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography highlights the landscape’s desolate beauty and how it shapes the characters of both the lawless and lawmen. It’s an isolated country that time forgot, where it’s still the Wild West of cattle ranchers and herds on the move and yet at the same time it’s banks are struggling to catch up with 21st century technology. And where even an old-timer customer in a remote bank is packing a gun and a one-horse-town diner with only steak on the menu has the crabbiest, elderly waitress since Five Easy Pieces (Margaret Bowman).

There are scenes of inept robberies, car chases and a tense cat-and-mouse scenario and shootout as Marcus and Alberto close in on the two-man amateur crime wave. There’s a sense throughout that this is a world that is becoming anachronistic and slowly ceasing to exist. The joy of the movie is in the shots of the wide, harsh landscapes and the empty towns, its way with words, the great acting all round from fine actors – dominated by Jeff Bridges – and the dynamics of the spiky rapport between the odd couples of both the two brothers and the two Rangers.

Hell or High Water premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 9 September 2016 in the UK.

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