It has been a while since I settled into a film as easily as this one which is a strange thing to say for a film that opens with a violent bank robbery. But this is a film built from the gritty ground up. With solid, believable characters, a simple story to treats its audience with respect and some hauntingly beautiful cinematography that called to mind Cormac McCarthy’s acid western novel, Blood Meridian. As I felt when I watched Brooklyn last year: They don’t make ’em like this anymore, until Hell or High Water.
It is film that oddly feels both confined and impossibly vast. At times the small towns of West Texas (actually filmed in Eastern New Mexico) feel restrictive and I felt the same sense of being trapped by circumstances the brothers are in. Then we get out onto those open roads of West Texas and it all feels limitless with a streak of black humor underpinning the sense of loss and melancholy that is the overriding emotion of the story.
We follow two brothers, Toby and Terrence (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) carrying out a number of small bank heists to raise the money to forestall the banks foreclosing on their family ranch. Trying to bring them down is ageing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), on the verge of retirement and, as he jokingly says to his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), looking to “go out in a blaze of glory.”
It is Jeff Bridges in full Jeff Bridges mode. Grunting and snarling his way through proceedings, enjoying every second and we are too. It’s an almost identical performance to what he delivers in True Grit with a marginally cheerier disposition. The relationship between him and Birmingham’s Alberto seems to be rancorous and bigoted at first but as the film plays out reveals itself to be far more good natured and rooted in a mutual respect and close friendship.
Hell or High Water begins as a straight cat-and-mouse thriller with the good guys chasing the bank robbing bad guys but it becomes clear that this is so much more. David MacKenzie and Taylor Sheridan are lamenting the passing of an era and the loss of older cultures as the banks are set up as the real villains. The ranching way of life dying out, people left behind for good by recession. Indeed, Birmingham’s Alberto gives a wonderful, fiery address over his ancestors – First Nations Americans – having their way of life brutally destroyed to make room for something else. As he rightly points out, the same thing is happening to the descendants of those brutal conquerors now.
MacKenzie has retained some of the themes of crises of masculinity in the modern age as he did with starred up. With seemingly supremely macho characters left emasculated by their worlds passing on and giving way to something else where there is no place for them.
It’s all in the little details. Such as a kraken of a women in a small-town diner telling the two rangers what they’ll be eating for dinner rather than asking them. Then in a conversation between Alberto and Marcus we see the same woman shuffling across the road to carry out her errands for the day. A wonderful little detail demonstrating people just trying to get along with their daily rituals in their dying rural towns. Broken and slowly swept away by the relentless march of corporatism. Whether it be the banks or the modern-day gold rush for oil.
It leaves you with a sense of empathy for the brothers their crimes increasing in severity and ferocity as the stakes get higher. Coupled with a terrific soundtrack by Nick Cave and Bad Seeds band mate Warren Ellis. A soundtrack to bring home the beautiful and terrifying bleakness of the dusty plains and the sparse and seemingly immeasurable open road like an emotional sledgehammer. You can almost feel the grit, the sand and the sweat. Smell the oil on the air as the pump jacks encroach further into the cropfields like grim mechanical cattle. Feel the bourbon burn down your throat.
It took three years for Hell or High Water to leave the vaunted “Black List” and enter in the realm of physical filming from that of hope and a prayer. In that time Sheridan’s screenplay for the superb Sicario landed last year. With Hell or High Water, his partnership with MacKenzie and a cast of outstanding performances – chiefly from Chris Pine who offers a pleasingly stripped-down and subtle performance to Foster’s mania and Bridges grunting – Sheridan may have delivered his best work yet.