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Hell or High Water. 2016. Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.
Starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Kristin Berg, & Katy Mixon.
Film 44/OddLot Entertainment/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 102 minutes.
Disclaimer: This review may contain several spoilers concerning the film’s finale.
The prospect of David Mackenzie (director of the phenomenal jail film Starred Up) and Taylor Sheridan (Deputy Chief David Hale on Sons of Anarchy and screenwriter of Sicario) making a film together is enough to get me on board. They’re each talented. After both the aforementioned movies it’s not hard to get excited – Starred Up is one of my favourite prison stories out there and Mackenzie’s directing helped the actors shine; Sicario comes at you like a shot in the night, written with depth by Sheridan.
Post-2000, the Western has seen a comeback. Not that every really went anywhere, but it’s definitely not as popular as it was in the 1950s and 60s when cinema saw everything from High Noon to Shane to The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy.
But over the past 15 years or so we’ve seen films like The Proposition, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, No Country for Old Men, the excellent Elmore Leonard television adaptation, FX’s Justified. Most recently there was Bone Tomahawk, and you can’t forget Tarantino and his Western-styled Django Unchained, as well as The Hateful Eight.
Much as I love all these more contemporary Westerns, and as much as I consider a couple of them genuine masterpieces, none of them capture the modern spirit while paying homage to the classic Western feel, characters, and plots. Perhaps it’s the past couple years especially, one thing’s for sure – Hell or High Water epitomises the economic struggle of people clinging to old ways of life in a world moving further into modernity every minute, for better or worse.
Throughout the film there’s a pervasive sense of desperation. The seriousness yet amateurish execution of the brothers and their robbery(/robberies) is quickly made evident. Both Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are complicit in their crimes, although the former is crazier, a little less predictable. Toby wants to secure a future for his boys. Tanner’s already been to prison, he has nothing left to lose and only money to gain. So the desperation is different between the brothers.
Another part of the story involves how, in some places like little rural towns, not-so-subtle racism is rampant. There are a bunch of perfect instances of this at various points. “They‘re not even Mexicans,” an old man says as one bank is robbed by the Howards. When ole Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges at possibly his greatest; that’s saying something) questions people on the robbery he leads with they must’ve been “Mexican, black” and later Hamilton even says to his own partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) that he knows “how you injuns like the bottle.” Hamilton represents that weird dichotomous supposed Southern gentleman who’s borderline to full-on racist at any given moment, yet a guy who’ll stand with a slight bow for a lady. There’s a lot of good writing from Sheridan, who seems intent on showing Texas in all its glory, whether that’s good or bad depends on the moment. But it’s warts and all, which makes everything feel right in place.
On a technical level, Hell or High Water is beyond fantastic. The cinematography helps show a small town in an economic slump, its slightly desolate sense of atmosphere, from which the desperate characters reach out to us begging for understanding. The look of the film is simultaneously gorgeous and full of grit, a perfect combination somewhere in the middle of the two. Then there’s the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who coincidentally did the score for another masterpiece Western (The Proposition). Their sound is perfect for the tone of the film and lifts many a scene, lending gravitas to even the tiniest of moments.
Again, I have to praise Sheridan. He writes the action well, opting not to go for all guns and chaos and instead focusing most on the characters to give us the impact necessary. Moreover, the dialogue’s the fresh kind. Not afraid to feel informal, personal, as well as the fact it’s funny at times and also deadly serious where necessary. Above all else, the Howards feel like actual brothers, Hamilton is a true old school Southern man. There’s a spectacular true to life concealed carry gunfight in one of the banks, followed by other Texans with guns waiting outside; sort of perfect, on the nose representation of how an actual robbery in the South could go down. Just all around awesome stuff continuing the screenwriting roll Sheridan is on as of late.
Tanner: “Only assholes drink Mr. Pep”
Toby: “Drink up”
On display in the screenplay is that dying Southern ideology of pretending racism is all in good fun, jokes and stuff, when really the laughs are only a cover for the true prejudice hiding underneath. This is clear through the tenuous partner-to-partner relationship between Marcus and Alberto, which flares up now and then getting fairly serious from time to time. Further than that, it’s tragically funny and at once awful that the cops blame blacks and Mexicans for so much crime when it’s actually two dirty white boys running around committing crimes. Classism is also there, as the two dirty white boys, like so many immigrants, are only trying to keep themselves from being fucked over ultimately by the banks and bullshit bureaucratic policy that affects the most vulnerable. In the end, it’s the elusive American Dream that’s always knocking at the door, increasing the desperation of cops and criminals alike.
This is a downright incredible Western, such a great contemporary take on the genre. Hell or High Water seems standard until the tail end when the brothers’ plight opens up story wise, revealing a few things that make the film’s final ten minutes one mighty treat to chew on: “I‘m the man who killed your brother,” as if ripped from an old Gary Cooper flick or something with John Wayne.
All three of the leads – Bridges, Foster, Pine – are impossibly perfect in their respective roles. Bridges, whose characters feel more good ole boy than Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men and thrice as grizzled, gives one of the best performances of his career. He shines as a man who’s well cemented in leading roles yet also has the makings of an impeccable character actor. The little things about Marcus Hamilton make him enjoyable, even as you hate him.
A 5-star bit of cinema, one of the best contemporary Westerns out there; if not the best in the past couple decades. I can’t for more directorial efforts from Mackenzie, proving himself double after this and Starred Up. And if Taylor Sheridan keeps producing the work he’s been pumping out in the last couple years, he’s bound to give us lots more to enjoy.