The still-dying West
If you want a compelling, well-written, well-acted and expertly executed alternative to the generic mainstream, hunt down this elusive little modern-day western.Although set in modern times, everything about David Mackenzie's 2016 crime drama Hell or High Water is pure western. Its tale - written by Taylor Sheridan, who did the stunning Sicario - is of a couple of brothers robbing banks and being hunted down by an ageing, on-the-eve-of-his-retirement Texas Ranger. On paper, it should have been a walking cliche, but MacKenzie and Sheridan work layered texture into the sprawling epic landscape, and the trio of stars utterly embrace their roles, leaving the film feeling both fresh and original.It's slow-burn approach to dissecting the motivations of the characters is impressive (again, not wholly unlike Sicario), with the filmmakers - and indeed the cast - more than prepared to get their hands dirty painting characters in myriad tones of grey. And with a striking setting and a sublime, melancholic score by Nick Cave, Hell or High Water brings these refined ingredients together to form a stronger contender for one of the best films of the year (alongside other underrated indie gems like Shane Black's The Nice Guys).
Considering he's now best-known as this generation's Kirk, Chris Pine does an outstanding job at distancing himself from his more glamorous work, lapping up his role as a desperate cowboy robbing banks in an age where people don't hope to rob banks and get away to spend the money. Pine's performance is understated and against-type, almost devoid of the natural charm and confidence he commonly exudes in his features, and instead a socially-withdrawn, wounded animal whose only direction appears to come from robbing banks. He manages to even imbue a sense of not actually wanting to do this, despite it being his plan. It may well be one of the best performances of his career.
Ben Foster, on the other hand, is last to get billed out of the three leads, but is arguably the most committed of the three - he's almost unrecognisable in the role, whether in his look or even his speech, and his more aggressive, but decidedly loyal big brother could have easily been another generic angry psycho bank robber role, but for Foster's outstanding work. Despite seldom getting the lead roles he deserves, he's proven capable of adding an extra layer of complexity to any role he takes, and thus benefits any film that lands him.
Of course this is Jeff Bridges's baby through and through, with the 66 year old actor similarly embracing a veteran Texan Ranger role - a cowboy himself - as if he were born for it. From his jibes against his beleaguered partner to his encounters with the colourful and cynical townsfolk in the locations which have been robbed, Bridges is a natural, and has a commanding presence presiding over the piece. It's great to see him on such fine form here.
The modern incarnation of the old west may be on its last legs, but thankfully the genre isn't.
Hell or High Water does an exceptional job at playing out as a classic western set in modern times, and there are surprisingly few examples of this (Christopher McQuarrie's underrated gem The Way of the Gun, for example), but what perhaps distinguishes it further is in the depiction of a still-slowly-dying West. Back in the day, Kirk Douglas would have rode into town on a horse and got into trouble because he refused to give up the old ways (Lonely Are the Brave), and would end up being hunted back into the hills; or Eastwood would leave the desert to go to the big city and wrangle his prey there (Coogan's Bluff), but we're half a century on from those, and it's interesting to see that the West is still alive - and still dying, just in a different way. Commercialisation, big city business, franchises and greedy banks - it's all sucking what little life is left out of these small towns, and Hell or High Water makes a western-infused story still relevant in 2016.
Comparisons have been made to No Country for Old Men, and there's certainly good reason: beyond the story elements, it's also laced with dark comedy - and light moments - as well as quirks that give the characters and the environment a rich authenticity, but Hell or High Water forges its own identity, bringing together script, score, cinematography, performances and direction - the five big boxes you'd ideally like every film to tick - to create an absolute gem.
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