This article was originally published to SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Margaret Bowman
In 2016, Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam; Starred Up) and American actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario; Wind River) came together to create Hell or High Water, a striking modern Western that took critics and audiences by storm. Sheridan’s script had been on the 2012 Black List and it isn’t hard to see why it made such an impression, sparking a fervent bidding war until Sidney Kimmel Entertainment successfully acquired the project.
The Howard Brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are on a crime spree spanning the state of Texas. Only the soon-to-be retired hero lawman Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) stands in their way. But are the brothers really just in it for the money and the thrill of the chase? Tanner may be, but his younger, wiser brother has another agenda beyond lining his own pockets.
Hell or High Water features career-best turns from an intense Chris Pine and an unhinged Ben Foster, great even by the latter actor’s career speciality of playing unstable live wires. They bring the brotherly banter along with a convincing portrayal of affection (reluctant or not) that you can only have for one of your own blood. Foster’s Tanner is the muscle; a blunt instrument prepared to do whatever it takes to come out on top. Pine’s Toby is the brains; far more cautious and forever trying to keep his volatile older brother in check lest he not only endanger their profitable spree but end their lives. They have some lovely moments together, whether celebrating a heist gone well over beers 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 rather annoyed 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 on a brave face whilst 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 panorama of a deserted parking lot that begins to track a bank employee (Dale Dickey) as she takes the long walk across the lot and through the doors of the bank to see the armed brothers lying in wait for her – is simply stunning. Whether watching the film with a crowd or at home, it’s almost impossible not to become enraptured from this very first, very confident, moment. It was somewhat of a surprise when David Mackenzie followed up his intimate and brutal prison drama Starred Up with a sweeping Western (or Southern), but you can pick up his self-assured sense of purpose 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 lockup, but here he uses interior spaces to a more comic effect, with Marcus knocking loose a lampshade by the simple act of taking off his comically big Texan hat in the pokiest of motel rooms he is forced to share with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) being a standout example. In Hell or High Water, the dread and the tension comes from how Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (The Fundamentals of Caring) use the many wide open, exposed spaces. The desolately 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 playfully noirish, deadpan and knowing script by Taylor Sheridan (that can comfortably be mentioned in the same breath as his equally excellent but much more sombre screenplay for Sicario), married with desolate Southern imagery, results in what can only be described as cinematic poetry. Margaret Bowman’s diner waitress’s barking of “What don’t ya want?” to her customers by way of taking an order, and a Texan would-be vigilante threateningly sneering “You gotta find the tree” that he’s determined to hang the bank robbers from (Marcus chuckling response: “Gotta love West Texas!”) being prime examples of the tonal shifts mastered by the highly respected screenwriter.
As well as all the usual Western tropes – shootouts, lawmen and outlaws, dusty frontier towns and bleak scenery – this film is an anti-financier treatise that was released in a world only just recovering from the 2008 financial crash. 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 decade or so, the latter corroding and destroying 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 eventually explained to us, the actual mechanics of Toby’s grand 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 probably not both. The message still hits like a bullet though, and Hell or High Water remains gripping and character-rich, packed with relevant real-world commentary and mythical imagery, proving a thrilling ride through gorgeous scenery.