A modern western that takes a poignant look at the decline of Texan culture, and takes a bitter swing at unscrupulous banking practices; yet with a warm undercurrent of sardonic humour and powerhouse performances from its cast. Hell or High Water has all the makings of a future classic.
Texas brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) are small time bank robbers working their way across the state and beyond. Using a careful, tried and tested system (taking only loose bank notes, laundering the cash at casinos, and getting an new getaway car for each job) the boys are playing the long game and their ultimate goal is simple: raise enough to pay off their mom’s mortgage before the greedy Texas Midland Bank forecloses on her oil-rich estate; a resource that will give Toby‘s estranged family a future in a world that no longer seems to have one. On their trail is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) an old-school Texas Ranger about to retire (what else?) who’s onto their scheme and wants to take them down and end his career on a high note.
Chris Pine gives a more restrained, subtle performance that normal and he really comes into his own as the sympathetic and more sensible brother. He’s a man doing the wrong thing in order to do the right thing; and Pine nails that inner conflict. Better still is the ever-dependable Ben Foster, his older sibling and the livewire of the duo who simply doesn’t give two hoots about anything except his little brother. Best of all perhaps is Jeff Bridges as the dry, cynical yet playful Marcus. His interactions with the locals and especially his Mexican-Indian partner are a delight; the two of them are like older versions of Brian and Mike from End of Watch; racially-themed ribbing and banter belying a genuine affection and respect, one that pays off later in the film.
It's a dry movie, with the same cynical humour as a Coens bros production, and David Mackenzie directs with a slow, deliberate pace that allows us to get to know these characters and immerse ourselves in West Texan culture. Taylor ‘Sicario’ Sheridan’s script is also a perfectly judged: sharp, authentic, and at times genuinely funny in places (the old waitress is a hoot). Comparisons to No Country for Old Men are therefore unavoidable. It’s not just the vast Texan landscapes, or the world-weary Lawman (Bridges character is a combination of his True Grit persona and Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed) but it also has that film's jaded cynicism and a rather melancholy hankering for the past; as if the world is coming to an end very slowly. At its heart, it's clearly a lamentation of a dying way of life.
This sense of entropy pervades the film; towns are deserted, homes have for sale signs, cattle ranchers struggle against the elements with depleted manpower (their kids not wanting that lifestyle) and people are jaundiced. Where Once Upon A Time In The West felt like the pioneering start of a new, exciting world of railroads, construction and commerce; Hell or High Water shows us the arse-end of that legacy: a west on the brink of extinction.
The synopsis and plot tropes are familiar, and the film’s road map is laid out in advance, rarely deviating from its slow, inexorable path. So those seeking fast paced action, thrills, or plot twist might therefore be disappointed. But like The Revenant, Hell or High Water is all about it's characters, what they are prepared to do for each other, and their journey. And Mackenzie and Sheridan get us there in mighty fine style.