Hell or High Water is a magnificent neo-Western with an organic sense of a place (Western Texas) and its people. Script, acting, direction, music and landscape work together to produce a rich portrait of a couple of cowpoke brothers trying to make things right. No longer cowboys vs. Indians, it is now cowboys against banks and big business, and the only arrows in evidence are the huge neon ones in a casino carpark.
Scottish director David Mackenzie, who made 2015’s acclaimed prison drama Starred Up, proves himself equal to the big skies of Texas and New Mexico; he lets Taylor Sheridan’s laconic, witty, and wise script dictate Hell or High Water’s leisurely pace. The bank robberies and occasional outbreaks of violence feel like an affront to laidback Texan normality: ‘it seems foolish’, says a cowboy in a diner, ‘the days of robbing banks and living off the money is long gone’.
But Toby (Chris Pine) and his trigger-happy brother Tanner (Ben Foster) have an unusual plan. They are robbing small amounts of cash from branches of Texas Midland Bank, laundering it in Oklahoma casinos, until they have enough to ‘pay those bastards back with their own money’ for debts owed on the family ranch, which has oil on its land. On their trail is wily old sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges), who is on the verge of retirement.
Superlative ensemble acting from a cast that includes a one-time Hollywood heartthrob (Bridges) and a present-day pin-up (Pine, Kirk in Star Trek) make Hell or High Water a joy to watch. Jeff Bridges is reliably grizzled and magnetic, but Pine is a revelation, giving a complex, ego-free performance as a man trying to redeem himself and save his estranged family from the ‘disease’ of poverty.
The film’s dialogue has a real snap, crackle and pop and it’s good to see the older female characters getting the best lines. A wise-cracking bank worker is questioned about whether the bank robbers are black or white. ‘Their skins or their souls?’ she answers. There is a wonderful old-timer waitress with rattlesnake skin who, asked by the sheriff how she is today, replies, ‘Hot. And not in a good way’.
Marcus enjoys teasing his ‘half-breed’ partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) about his Indian ancestry. ‘I’m part Mexican too,’ points out Alberto. ‘I’m going to get through the Indian insults first,’ drawls Marcus. ‘Might be a while’. When the sheriff crows about being right about something, his partner observes ‘sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.’
The plaintive fiddles in Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score perfectly evoke the Texan landscape, with its parched farmland, see-sawing oil wells and lonely highways, its creaking windmills and wheezing crickets. This mood music is complemented by the brothers’ beloved ‘giddy-up music’, the Country & Western they listen to on the car radio.
Comparisons can be drawn with the work of the Coen Brothers, though Hell and High Water is a more understated, elegiac film than, say, Fargo or No Country for Old Men. Director Mackenzie is quietly angry on behalf of the Texan poor and dispossessed. He doesn’t ram his message down our throats, but he signposts it (opening image: graffiti written by an Iraq War veteran; later, a billboard ad which reads: IN DEBT?), and like his audience, he is very much on the side of the outlaws.