Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: David Mackenzie
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Released 9th September 2016
Here’s a film that could easily find its way onto many top ten lists at the end of the year, mine included. A modern western, a heist movie, a chase movie – David Mackenzie’s ‘Hell Or High Water’ is all of them. And more.
The landscape is familiar: the Texas/Mexican border. Wide expanses of arid nothingness, punctuated by For Sale signs and post-recession towns dying on their feet before your eyes. And it’s the economic downturn that drives the story, with brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster deciding to prevent the bank foreclosing on the family farm. Their plan? Pay the outstanding debt by robbing bank branches – that belong to the very same bank they owe money to. But after the first two hold-ups, they have a canny Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on their tail in what could be his last job before he hands in his badge for good.
Mackenzie flings us straight into the story with the first robbery. We can’t see the brothers’ faces, we don’t know who they are or why they’re holding up the bank. We have to figure out everything as we move along with the film – and it’s well past the half way mark before we discover their actual names. But what we learn before then is important. One of them (Foster) is dangerous, a risk taker and just out of jail after 10 years inside. The other (Pine) is more intelligent, less of a chancer and less inclined towards violence – although he doesn’t shy away from using some muscle when he has to.
They’re two sides of the same coin and they’ve come together to solve a problem. You can say the same about the two men on the right side of the law. Grizzled Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges) loves to unravel a crime and the thrill of the chase, but has reached the point where he doesn’t care too much what he says or to whom. His part-Comanche right hand man, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is constantly on the receiving end of his non-PC jibes and digs, but rarely rises to the bait. Because, underneath all the banter, they genuinely like and respect each other.
As well as obeying some of the conventions of the more traditional western – the shoot-out towards the end for one – it’s a film generously sprinkled with some beautiful cameos. During the second bank robbery, an elderly customer takes a pot shot at the brothers and misses by a mile. He has the dust and sweat of the desert etched deep on his face. Or what Bridges describes as the “rattlesnake of a waitress” in a café that only serves T-bone steaks – and they’re only cooked medium rare. So she only ever asks customers what they don’t want to eat. For the record, Buck Taylor and Margaret Bowman are responsible for these little gems.
And the fact that they stand out says a lot for their performances, given that the film is packed with top of the range acting. Bridges is totally on form as the crusty Ranger, the chameleon-like Foster has a stare that makes you shiver, Pine shows he can do more than just be James T Kirk and Gil Birmingham’s quiet dignity is a perfect foil for Bridges. He’s also the most likeable person on the screen.
David Mackenzie has moved out of the confines of his previous film, the hard-hitting prison drama ‘Starred Up’ (2013) and expanded out into equally wild territory, with its own moral code, but on a bigger scale. He’s helped hugely by Taylor Sheridan’s economical script, which won the 2012 Black List. His next script was ‘Sicario’ (2015), which says it all.
Whether you choose to see ‘Hell Or High Water’ as a western, a chase movie, a heist movie or a combination of all three is entirely up to you. But there’s no denying it’s an immensely satisfying, multi-layered film that grabs you from the outset and refuses to let you go. Not that you want it to, because it takes you on one heck of a ride.