Hell or High Water
In truth, I went in to see Hell or High Water with a sense of some trepidation. This movie comes from the pen of Taylor Sheridan, who brought us Sicario last year, a film that promised much, and delivered not much more than sweeping vistas punctuated by not very much else. The question here is very much was that a result of Sheridan’s screenplay, or was it due more to Denis Villeneuve’s (Arrival, Prisoners) direction? With this in mind, I took the compelling trailer and positive buzz with a pinch of salt, and settled in for the ride.
The story follows a pair of brothers as they cut a swathe through Texas, robbing banks as they go. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton, brought to life with gusto by a Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, The Fisher King) who’s on sparkling form, and his long suffering partner Alberto Parker, played with real heart by Gil Birmingham (Twilight, The Lone Ranger). Hamilton is playing out his last few days before retirement, so wants some action before he hangs up his badge, and the pattern that emerges from the robberies peaks his interest.
It turns out the brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard, are only robbing small amounts, and only from various branches of the one bank. Over the course of the movie we find out why Toby, played in a wonderfully understated fashion by Chris Pine (Into the Woods, Star Trek: Beyond), is so insistent on this, and why he’s so worried about the actions of his far more reckless brother Tanner, who’s dual sided personality is portrayed with zeal by Ben Foster (Warcraft: the Beginning, The Finest Hours). What we are left with is a game of cat and mouse played out over the backdrop of a crumbling American heartland. Tracking shots through desolate towns with For Sale signs, and along deserted country roads, the dust stirred up by the wind, and the slowly shifting Oil Pumps the only sign of movement for miles give a real sense of melancholy and the end of things.
Mirroring this is Bridges’ Hamilton, desperate to still be relevant, and not to just fade away. He’s out and out racist to his friend and partner Alberto, but there is no malice to it, in fact it’s almost affectionate in the way only insults between friends can be. This banter also has a real sense of something that has had its time and needs to be moved on from, and the relationship Alberto has with Hamilton shows the hidden depth of their history together, highlighting the understanding that only very good friends can have. Add to this fantastic characterisation the little asides from supporting cast members, playing out their time, just getting by, with less and less on the table in terms of both money and opportunity, which brings a depth to the story that could otherwise have been seen as a standard cop verses anti-hero trope. These scenes with cowboys herding their steers across roads, and no-nonsense waitresses refusing to be cow-towed add a real beauty to the piece.
Sheridan as the writer deserves credit for this, but even more praise should be heaped on director David MacKenzie. His trademarked style is all over the work, and you can see echos of his previous work on Young Adam and Hallam Foe, both wonderful movies in their own right. MacKenzie seems to get nuanced performances out of his actors that others seem to miss, and this is writ large on Hell or High Water with Pine and Foster never having been better. It really is the little moments and asides that make you care, and although a lot of what is coming next in the narrative is telegraphed miles before, the richness of the characters makes those moments seem like genuine surprises, and will shock you as they happen, no matter how prepared you think you are.
So what would keep this from being a ten out of ten, best movie of the year? Well, as I mentioned, the story, as rich as it is, is fairly generic, and you can see the plot twists coming a mile off. The slow pace may also jar with some, and although the sense of a time and a place coming to an end will be wonderful for those that thrive on such things, it might be lost on some, or a bit heavy for others.
The acting on display here, and from some very well known faces, is on another level, and the cinematography is poignantly beautiful. The direction is fascinating and MacKenzie should be a strong contender at the Oscars if there’s any justice. It’s not a thrill a minute ride, although the action when it comes is well handled, but Hell or High Water is very much worth 102 minutes of your time, catch it on the big screen whilst you can.
Lastly, I have to add, even if everything I’ve had to say about this film doesn’t grab you, take the time to look-out the haunting soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, you will thank me.
- a compelling story.
- poignant visuals.
- director David MacKenzie’s raw talent.
- a palpable sense of melancholy.
- top notch performances from the cast.
- a slightly generic story arc.
- pacing that might be too slow for some.