If the Western is to be a permanent fixture in American cinema, how does it evolve? It can, of course, keep looking back to a time when land was fiercely scrambled for. But what of life in the contemporary westerly United States? With all the flourishing head rushes of climbing on a horse and driving flags into the ground long gone, there are new stories to be told on that same terrain. You can watch Hell or High Water like the crime thriller it certainly is, but you can also see it as a continuation of how people maintain their existence in what remains a desolate and extraordinary part of the world.
In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine respectively), are mourning the loss of their mother. Though, through very different lenses. On being unable to maintain her mortgage payments during her illness, their mother had been ruthlessly bullied by the bank for cash she didn’t have. Now that she’s gone, the same bank is determined to repossess the family ranch intended for Toby’s partially estranged children and ex-wife. In an attempt to raise the cash and to keep the property in the family, they plot out several small-scale bank robberies in and around the dusty towns of West Texas. In theory, it’s a flawless plan.
The scheme is all fun and games for Tanner, whose foolhardy criminal past provides him with all the knowledge and arrogance needed. For Toby, who just wants to break the cycle of poverty his kids seem destined to carry forward, the entire thing feels wholly unnatural, if still necessary. Despite at least one half of the duo believing they’re committing the perfect crime in paying the bank with their own money, someone’s on their tail. Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is inches away from retirement and in the mood for one final jaunt before hanging up his hat. Joined by his long-suffering police partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who takes Hamilton’s relentless jibes with astonishing good grace, they head out into the emptiness of the plains in order to second-guess the brothers’ next move.
It’s a strong label to attach to any movie, but Hell or High Water may just be the perfectly balanced film. Not least down to the deliciously understated performances. The chemistry between Foster and Pine is especially attractive. They may live on opposite sides of the tracks, but their familial love for each other shines through. It’s also satisfying to see Chris Pine given the freedom to create his own character away from the well-established franchises he’s most famous for. He has a face made to be moustached and muddied on a big screen. Jeff Bridges is entirely believable as the gravel-voiced authority figure avoiding the rocking chair lifestyle nipping at his heels, though it’s impossible to separate him from the sizzle that occurs when exchanging barbs with Alberto. Gil Birmingham is invaluable here.
The uncredited character in the film is the assaulting Texan landscape. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan have designed the script and the dizzying overhead camera shots to cuddle around the almost unfathomable wide open spaces and big skies. There are metaphors to be drawn between the Howards' fight against unfeeling corporate America and everyone’s physical insignificance against this sprawling backdrop. With the raw British prison drama Starred Up under his directorial belt, Mackenzie is no stranger to brutal honesty. The way he delivers life in the modern American West, which often appears to be a case of survival rather than good living, brings about a whole different kind of stinging burn. All this is propped up by a chilling original score produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, punctuated by the likes of Colter Wall and Chris Stapleton to drive home the belief that this still is outlaw country.
What’s most surprising about Hell or High Water is that it contains a steady stream of humour. There’s no goofiness, but the notion that drama doesn’t operate within a vacuum and that everyday life is made up of as much laughter as it is tragedy fits beautifully around the film. The jokes flow so naturally that the cinema audience laughed out loud in numerous spots. There’s a generous helping of tempered heart on both sides of the story and the carefully placed comedy moments make everyone that much more endearing. All four men and the suspiciously authentic supporting cast are acutely likeable, making for a story where you want everyone to make it out the other side unscathed.
Without a blockbuster promotional budget, this film might run the risk of being overlooked in favour of movies that have the ability to shout louder. Word of mouth is doing it a great service, but it deserves to be at the top of more people’s ‘to-see’ lists. Hell or High Water is powerfully burly without being obnoxious, tender without becoming saccharine. It’s set in a world where every inside pocket holds a gun, where Gadsden flags act as home decor and, fittingly for a fresh take on the classic style, a corner of the world where land ownership still sometimes means more than life itself. It’s a reminder that some Texans’ desire to have their state become a country in its own right may not be as ludicrous as it sounds. It occasionally looks and feels like another planet entirely.
Hell or High Water is showing in UK cinemas nationwide now.