A divorced dad and his ex-con brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.
The terrific ‘Hell or High Water’ is one of those rare films that is virtually note perfect in everything it sets out to achieve. The film is ostensibly a thriller about a pair of brothers carrying out bank heists and the attempts to catch them, but this premise merely forms the backdrop for a film with a lot more to say about its themes and America today as a whole. Given the team behind the movie this is hardly a surprise, with direction coming from ‘Starred Up’ director David Mackenzie and a script from Taylor Sheridan, who wrote one of last year’s finest scripts, the morally complex ‘Sicario’. It doesn’t stop there, with a wealth of talent in front of the camera and a perfectly suited score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who are fast becoming as much a part of the modern day Western as Ennio Morricone was to Sergio Leone.
The film begins as brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob two bank branches early in the morning, taking small amounts from the tills primarily. It’s clear from the outset that the men are relative amateurs and the banks they rob are much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing in the movies, with a lack of customers and locations in dusty run down towns. This detail is important to the themes ‘Hell or High Water’ will explore throughout its runtime, as Mackenzie’s direction follows the brothers car along deserted highways, passing signs for ‘quick loans’ and signs of industrial sites that time has left behind. It’s a very evocative setting and the cinematography and direction really help to give us a sense of the area and the situation it, and the characters find themselves in.
We learn more about Toby and Tanner; Tanner is the hotheaded brother, just out of jail for killing their abusive father, whilst Toby is more focused and is the one who devised the plan. The plan involves several small scale robberies over a few days, in order to get enough money so that Toby can pay off the reverse mortgages on the family’s ranch to secure a comfortable future for his estranged son. Both are men hamstrung by circumstance, living in a place stuck in time whilst the world has moved on, forced into desperate action by the unscrupulous actions of the bank and a lack of opportunities. Ben Foster can play these roles in his sleep and he’s typically unsettling and engrossing whilst Chris Pine is also outstanding, in a role slightly different to the charismatic leading men we’ve seen him play most frequently.
On their case is a retiring Texas Ranger, played knowingly by Jeff Bridges, and he’s an intelligent foil for the two men. The early scenes with him rely too much on Bridges natural charisma and suitability for the role as well as the tropes of the ‘one last job’ style, but when we lean into his relationship with his partner (Gil Birmingham), we learn more about his character and in turn, a lot more about this small part of Texas they’re operating in. It’s not quite on the grand scale of Tommy Lee Jones sermons in ‘No Country for Old Men’, but there’s merit in the time spent with Bridges ranger who’s been there and seen it all. Like ‘Sicario’, this is a very sharply written script and the narrative rarely wastes a moment without ever feeling like we’re rushing through plot – every scene and every action matters and that’s in large part because the characterisation is so strong. These are all desperate men, in one way or another, but they are written smartly and we are fully invested in all of their plights.
‘Hell or High Water’ is a superb piece of filmmaking, directed from a fantastic screenplay and driven by stunning cinematography and a series of strong performances. It’s one of the years best and it’s well worth your time.
Directed By: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Christopher W. Garcia, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin and Melanie Papalia