“A loud declaration that the western, at its core, is a viable and flexible genre, which does not have to be relegated to the formulaic storylines of the Technicolor TCM staples.”
by Ken Bakely
The West Texas of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water has been pulverized by the recession. Billboards advertising debt relief schemes are backdrops on the outskirts of tiny towns. The mere mention of the banking industry can drive people to mumbling and sarcastic remarks. When brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) begin a series of low-key heists across a small branch of banks, most locals asked by police for information on the crimes or the suspects couldn’t care less. This proves rather irritating for Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a senior Texas Ranger who wants to finish one last case before heading off into retirement. He’s been following the two men’s trail of robberies, alongside fellow officer Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), and while they generally figure out the basic details of who they’re after, Toby and Tanner’s increasingly volatile and unpredictable behavior leads to increasing stakes and unknowable consequences.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also penned Sicario, returns to craft another crime story in which the characters evolve incrementally, with more and more becoming apparent through ever-increasing tension. The setting is an integral part of the film, with Sheridan setting ninety percent of the movie in small settlements, remote ranches, and the flat, endless plains. It’s all brought to life through Sheridan’s space-conscious direction and Giles Nuttgen’s breathtakingly mega-scaled cinematography, the vastness of the desert often overstated to juxtapose the walls closing in on the characters at its center, engaged in a race against time. For Tanner and Toby, they must collect a particular sum of money within a few days in order to ensure the financial stability of their family’s farm, and also must pay attention to the lawmen chasing after them.
Hell or High Water’s devotion to building an atmospheric and convincing world is fully admirable, although its top-level precision gives away a particular lack of insight below the surface of the 102 minute film. Conversations between Marcus and Alberto often foster the basic rapport between the two rather than the background that Sheridan seems to be aiming for. An apparent desire to dive into the economic depletion affecting the movie’s setting is squandered beyond a scene here and there. It feels as if Sheridan has somehow been limited, or sized up the material in a way that doesn’t quite pan out. This is never an overwhelming issue, but it does limit the potential scope of capable acting and measured direction.
For the performances are a pleasure in their own right. Chris Pine unilaterally shows his versatility here, continuing to prove that he is more than the famous blockbuster roles that made him a household name. He creates complex chemistry with Foster, a complicated relationship between brothers that is tested through increasingly extreme scenarios. On the other end of the story, Jeff Bridges anchors his character with curtness and directness, a steady flavor of weathered masculinity that has been obtained through decades of relentless professionalism and dedication. To watch these two sets of individuals navigate, weaving in and out of each other’s peripheral vision, is accomplished with spectacular clarity, thanks to an essentially solid story structure bolstered by full-bodied acting.
While this is not quite enough to fully overcome the screenplay’s occasional apprehension, Mackenzie is a sufficiently talented helmsman to rally his cast and crew, and present an exciting movie. What could have been a meek satellite within No Country for Old Men’s sphere of influence instead becomes a confident work in its own right. On balance, Hell or High Water is a loud declaration that the western, at its core, is a viable and flexible genre, which does not have to be relegated to the formulaic storylines of the Technicolor TCM staples. The twists and pangs that drive the plot forward are fundamental to any old standard of its genre, yet presented as expressly fresh with the influences of not only a contemporary setting, but inspired work both in front of and behind the camera.