Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water is a deftly paced and genuine-hearted crime-drama that not only echoes the classic slower-paced, yet tense, Western but also keeps it modern with a specific weight on how debt and the lack of industry has decimated the mid-western American economy, and even brings up the question: Who’s really to blame?
Reunited after years apart, Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) start robbing small banks as they need the money to stop a foreclosure on their land, and the siblings feel this is their last chance to take back the future they feel is moving away from their grasp. Things start well but soon Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are on their tail…if they can work out who exactly is committing the crimes. As events accumulate, all four will learn more about each other than ever and they’re taken to smart and unexpected places to see what they’re made of.Throughout proceedings Bridges’ Texas state ranger Marcus Hamilton is paired up with Birmingham’s native American Texas Ranger Alberto Parker and constantly pokes light-hearted fun at his origins and while it is quite racist and xenophobic, it becomes more of a ‘partnership’ jest for each other as they’ll both stand the ground of who they are without it getting excessively vicious or beyond the lands of a mutual understanding. Their relationship is vital to the narrative and even though Hamilton is often the one in charge and leading the way, it becomes clear they’re on equal playing fields.
There’s a standout scene for me where Hamilton is saying Parker’s people were ‘still living in caves’ not that long ago but Parker points out that although they may have, they were also all killed by people arriving from the outside and it’s the banks in today’s world that are the ones we should be watching out for. The film gets you thinking that if we all got together and took back the money, then we’d all be better off and more equal. Yet here we are, fighting the wrong people, blaming each other while the government don’t bring it down on the banks and they continue to get away with their crimes. In truth it’s that clear but in the modern reality we’ve created, it has somehow become something unknown…when it’s right in front of us.
Hell or High Water gives us sublime, natural portrayals from Pine and Foster as the brothers Howard who offer up a different view on what’s happening but all the time show their commitment to each other and do it with utter authenticity. It also offers up stunning cinematography from Giles Nuttgens who offers us a look inside Texas that highlights the earthy tones alongside the reality of old, once-busy towns which are now dying out. When you add in music created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, it creates an atmosphere that’d be hard not to be taken in by.
On the surface level Hell or High Water is your classic tale of bank-robbers being chased by an old cop on his last days but the truth of events is something a lot deeper and richer. Fully character driven with captivating performances from the lead four, in Foster, Pine, Bridges and Birmingham, McKenzie has created a superb, dust-bowl fight of living and what people do to keep the simple things running. There’s the natural instinct of just wanting to survive and that’s what makes this very special indeed: life is a fight but for family? It’s worth everything, whatever you have to do.