Calvin Law discusses David Mackenzie’s thrilling neo-Western – now nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture.
The conceit of David Mackenzie’s latest film, Hell or High Water, seems simple enough: two brothers in Texas hold up banks for money to save the family ranch while outwitting some colourful lawmen. It’s the sort of old-fashioned crime yarn Martin Ritt would’ve spun something out of back in the day, probably with Richard Beymer and Steve McQueen as the outlaw siblings and James Stewart as the wily lawman. Here, however, we have film that, as much as its plot is a throwback to the old-style thrillers, can also be characterised as a neo-noir that paves its own way into the genre. It’s a film requiring a great deal of patience; after opening with a terse, heart-pounding series of heists by the volatile Tanner (Ben Foster) and his younger brother, the more subdued Toby (Chris Pine), the film soon settles into a slow-burn in terms of both its plot development and pace.
Of all the Oscar nominees this year, this may be the most understated film. Arrival, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight present taut, clinical character studies with outbursts of emotion; Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, and Lion highly stylized biopics which go for the jugular; and La La Land and Fences draw attention to the loud theatrics and showmanship of their characters, albeit in very different ways. Hell or High Water is the ‘quiet’ sibling of this lot. It is a modern-day thriller filmed in the style of a 60’s period piece, with archetypal characters of that time: the violent criminal (Tanner), the straight arrow turned rogue (Toby), the Texas Ranger on his last case (Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton), and even the colleague he good-naturedly ribs about his Mexican and Comanche heritage (Gil Birmingham’s Alberto Parker). Treated carelessly, these archetypes could have been simplistic or even offensively outdated; luckily it’s the expert hand of Taylor Sheridan, who penned 2015’s underrated Sicario, responsible for crafting these figures. Sheridan makes them multidimensional and vividly realized. The parallel storylines of the brothers and the lawmen, the main characters Toby and Marcus and their ‘supportive’ partners Tanner and Alberto, are given equal depth. Their tones may vary – the Texas Rangers share a far more humorous rapport than the tense dynamic between psychotically jovial Tanner and stoic Toby – but they never clash, and credit must go to editor Jake Roberts for seamlessly segueing one half to the other.
Mackenzie’s direction establishes an impressive sense of place and time in the Texas midlands. As La La Land and Moonlight more recently showed, it’s possible to turn a modern-day setting into one with a genuine retro feel. The camera pans over vast, desolate and dirty landscapes where the brothers drink beer and shoot the breeze. Marcus, contemplating his retirement and the drudgery of the years ahead, walks out at dawn with a long blanket draped over his shoulders like a cowboy whose poncho has gotten too big for him. Such images contrast with the clean but cold interiors of the banks and casinos. The outdoors provides characters with respite, relaxation, room for thought; the indoors is where money can obtained – by ill means – and spent. When the final act arrives and the film emerges from its quiet shell to release a visceral, no-holds-barred shootout, the effect is enhanced by the aforementioned stylistic choice.
This West is no Wild West, though. There’s no clear Good or Bad, and even the Ugly is subdued. Hell or High Water‘s characters are very subtly developed, and it might take re-watches to truly appreciate what Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine do in their roles: one as a man whose whole life has been driven by the law, and one whose life has driven him against it. Bridges, giving his best performance since the Big Lebowski, may seem initially to be reprising his quirky Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, but his portrayal here is far more complex. Marcus is a fairly easygoing guy, very professional but also very approachable; the rapport he strikes up with Birmingham is endearing. One of his reaction shots late in the film, lasting a few seconds, might be the best acting of Bridges’ career. Pine, an underrated actor who always delivers in his more zany supporting turns and straightforward leading roles, is impressive as the grungy, divorced but far from deadbeat dad, with a sincere conviction that his criminal acts are for the greater good. He and Bridges anchor the film’s central conflict between law and disorder perfectly, with Birmingham as a suitably loveable foil to Bridges. The highlight of the film, however, is Foster. The king of cinematic intensity delivers another compelling portrayal of an unhinged psychopath. Toby is menacing yet strangely entertaining in his anti-establishment ethos. Whether he’s confronting a fellow gambler, taking potshots at the cops, or holding up banks with such unhinged expertise, you can’t take your eyes off him; but the script never loses sight of the fact that above all he is a loving brother, and the relationship between Foster and Pine’s characters is surprisingly emotional. Like Moonlight, Hell or High Water deconstructs the hardened criminal trope by showing that, masculine and tough they may be, these men have souls and affections.
The film isn’t perfect. A few lines are on-the-nose when the philosophizing of our lawmen gets a bit abstract, and a Coen Brothers-lite scene with an abrasive waitress feels very much out of place. The restraint of Mackenzie’s direction, while admirable, makes the film halt at certain points when it should be moving along, particularly in the second act. These, though, are quibbles, considering the incredible third act, and a powerful conclusion which succinctly summarises the film’s themes and manages to provide a fitting end despite the lack of real resolution. As one of Hell or High Water’s final lines notes, ‘It’s gonna haunt you, son. For the rest of your days.’ Fittingly, the film is one that does not strike at you or enforce its message upon you, but one that will haunt you afterwards.
Hell or High Water is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD platforms in the UK. See the trailer below: