Directed by David Mackenzie
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Released on 9th September 2016
It’s a title that belongs to a western, although the fact that it’s a standard property insurance clause is probably more relevant to the story of Hell Or High Water. Yet it’s still a western as well, but of the modern variety.
And it’s a heist movie. And a chase movie. The setting is the Texas/Mexican border, wide expanses of arid nothingness, punctuated by towns dying on their feet from the recession. It’s that economic downturn, and the inevitable For Sale signs, that drives the story. Put simply, it’s about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who are decide to prevent the plug being pulled on the family farm by robbing banks to pay the outstanding debt. The very same bank they owe money to. After the first two, they have a canny Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on their tail on what could be his last job before retirement.
Director David Mackenzie immediately hurls us into the story, leaving it up to us to figure out what’s going on. So we can’t see the brothers’ faces, we don’t know who they are or why they’re raiding the bank – and it’s not until well past the halfway point that we learn their actual names. But the differences between the two are apparent from the start. One of them is more brutal, a dangerous risk-taker. Further along the way we discover he’s spent 10 years in prison and has just been released. He’s Tanner (Ben Foster). The other’s more intelligent, more cautious and less inclined towards violence – although he’s tough when he needs to be. He’s Toby (Chris Pine). Their banter is brotherly in its baiting, Toby is constantly frustrated by his older brother’s behaviour, but the bond is most definitely there. They’re two sides of the same coin.
As are the men on their tail, who come from the other side of the law. Grizzled Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges) and his part-Comanche right hand man, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Bridges loves to unravel a crime, loves the chase but has also reached the point where he speaks his mind and doesn’t care who he upsets. With Alberto, he can get away with his non-PC jibes and digs, because they know each other well and respect each other hugely. Their scenes together, and the ones between the brothers, run in parallel.
Aside from its A-list cast, Hell Or High Water is blessed with some joyous cameos. There’s the elderly customer in one of the bank robberies, who shoots at the brothers and misses by a mile. The dust and sweat that goes with living in such an unforgiving part of the country is ground into his face. Or there’s what Bridges describes as the “rattlesnake of a waitress” in a café. It only serves T-bone steaks and they’re only done medium rare. So she asks customers what they don’t want. It’s one of the most memorable moments in the film. And, in case you’re wondering, Buck Taylor and Margaret Bowman created these masterly thumbnails.
Not that the rest of the performances are in the slightest bit shabby. You wouldn’t expect anything less. Bridges is in his element as the canny Ranger, the chameleon-like Foster is a long way from Lance Armstrong, this time with scary, staring eyes. Pine shows he can do more than just be James T Kirk and Gil Birmingham’s a quietly spoken and dignified foil for Bridges, giving the film its moral compass.
It’s a film crammed with good things. David Mackenzie has seamlessly moved away from the confines of his previous movie, Starred Up, into a never ending landscape that’s just as wild and also has a code all of its own. The script comes from Taylor Sheridan and it won the 2012 Black List. His next was Sicario. And the jangling, atmospheric score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis makes great use of pounding instrumentals and traditional country and western.
Heist movie, chase movies, modern western – Hell Or High Water is all of those. The choice is entirely yours. Whichever – and however many – you go for, it’s an immensely satisfying multi-layered film that captures your attention from the very first second and keeps a firm, steady hold. And you never want it to let go.
Hell Or High Water is released on Friday, 9 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 8 September.