Where this this one come from? HELL OR HIGH WATER arrived with plenty of established talent involved, but very little fanfare. It turns out to be one of the best releases this year, and among the most enlightening and relevant.
The Howard Brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are on crime spree spanning Texas. Only soon-to-be retired lawman Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) stands in their way. But are they really just in it for the money and the thrill of the chase? Tanner may be, but his younger, wiser brother has another agenda.
The film features career-best turns from an intense Chris Pine and a chunky and unhinged Ben Foster. They bring the brotherly banter along with a convincing portrayal of affection (reluctant or not) you can only have for a sibling. Tanner is the muscle; a blunt instrument prepared to do whatever it takes to come out on top, and Toby is the brains; more cautious and forever trying to keep his volatile older brother in check. They have some lovely moments together, whether celebrating a heist gone well or bickering over the narrowest of escapes and always with deep abiding love. Jeff Bridges does what he does best with added lower jaw acting as a cop pained to be approaching compulsory retirement. Marcus has the usual Bridges swagger, but it’s a pretty melancholy turn from the former Dude; he sells this old-timer putting a brave face on going through the most terrifying experience of his life: staring down the prospect of doing nothing for the final stretch of his existence.
Hell or High Water’s opening shot – a long take of a deserted parking lot then tracking a bank employee as she takes the long walk across and through the doors – is just stunning. I saw this film in an intimate little indie cinema and the whole (tiny) audience was enraptured from this very first, very confident, moment. It was a surprise when David Mackenzie followed up intimate and brutal prison drama STARRED UP with a Western (or Southern) but you can pick up his strutting confidence behind the camera from the sure hand with which he guides both full-blown shootouts and close-scrutiny character work.
Mackenzie created such an uncomfortable atmosphere in the confined corridors of a prison, but here he uses space to a more comic effect with Marcus knocking loose a lampshade by the simple act of taking off his hat in the pokiest of motel rooms and Tanner making a serious misjudgement by trying to rob a bank across the street midway through breakfast. In Hell or High Water the dread comes from open, exposed spaces. The desolate-beautiful Texan landscapes spell trouble for anyone making their way across them and every character who meets a nasty end meets it in the glare of the Texan sun.
The noirish, knowing script by Taylor Sheridan (straight off the equally excellent but much more sombre SICARIO) married with desolate Southern imagery results in what can only be described as cinematic poetry. The waitress’s barking of “What don’t ya want?” to her customers and a Texan would-be vigilante sneering “You gotta find the tree” that he’s determined to hang the bank robbers from (Marcus chuckling response: “Gotta love West Texas!”).
This is an anti-financier treatise. The two great evils in modern America are arguably prejudice and greed, and both have taken a fully justified beating on film over the past couple of years, and the latter corrodes and destroys everyone it touches in this story. You want these brothers playing Robin Hood to get away with it – the banks deserve to be punished and played at their own game. Though it’s explained to us, the mechanics of Toby’s plan are a little hard to get a good fix on. You can see how his crime spree could benefit his estranged family, or hurt the money men, but not both. You still get the message though and Hell or High Water remains engrossing and character rich, packing an important message along with this thrilling ride through gorgeous scenery. SSP