Hell or High Water is a riveting, funny, violent action thriller set in today’s small-town Texas, where yesterday’s Stetson-wearing gun-totin’ characters still abound. This is 24 Carat filmmaking, as flat-out enjoyable and entertaining as it gets, with brains.
GFC-ravaged small-town Texas and the expansive, often desolate but somehow indefatigable landscape in between are definitive elements of Hell or High Water. The sense of place is pervasive, brilliantly conveyed via the cinematography, the soundtrack (another excellent job from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and the characters. Think of the film, you think of small-town Texas and the people it spawns – laconic, tough, wry, and not inclined to expansive dialogue, whatever side of the central dramatic conflict they’re on.
As with any western (that’s the genre Hell or High Water fits best), the conflict comes down to outlaws vs lawmen, but in this case the divide between the two is grey, rather than black and white. See, the bank robber outlaws, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), are operating in a just cause, targeting branches of the bank that is about to foreclose on the family farm and homestead. Their objective is to steal only enough to pay off their bank debt before the looming expiry date. A sweet irony indeed, paying the bank back with money stolen from it.
Interestingly, parallels are drawn between the Comanche – once the “lords of the plain” in the region – being dispossessed of their land by white settlers, and the banks dispossessing the ancestors of those settlers of that very same land. However, although we have sympathy for the brothers’ situation, they are not romanticised as Robin Hoods. Indeed, Tanner is a bona fide crim, having recently been released after a long stint in jail, and his violent streak surfaces in some of the holdups. He’s joined forces with Toby partly out of sibling loyalty, and partly, you sense, because he welcomes the opportunity to continue in the line of “work” he knows best and raise a bit o hell into the bargain.
All the performances are absolute top notch, but Jeff Bridges steals the show as drawling about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Bridges is always enthralling, but he exceeds even his own stellar standards here.
Hamilton’s PIC racial stereotype payouts on part-American-Indian deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) warrant a mention. In a lesser actor, racially-based wisecracking like this might have misfired, but Bridges is tone-perfect, managing to convey an underlying affection in his delivery. Thus, what could have been offensive is funny, the you-can’t-say-that factor lending an extra titillation to Hamilton’s wilful transgressions of the socially acceptable. Alberto plays his part by denying him any reaction. In the hands of these two actors, the repartee between their characters is endearing, their mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company obvious. The rampantly PC brigade might choose to spoil the film for themselves by taking righteous offence at Hamilton’s faux-racism, but fuck ‘em – there are times to take a chill pill and just accept characters for who they are, and this is one of them.
With a string of successful hold-ups behind them, the brothers are but one more away from achieving their objective. Of course, we know things ain’t gonna run smooth to the finish line, and it’s no spoiler to confirm that the film ultimately climaxes with a showdown twixt Rangers and robbers – inevitable sure, but unpredictable in aspects of its outcome. Ditto the clever resolution that follows, and the satisfying twist that comes with it.
I’d like to be able to end with the smart-arse observation that Hell or High Water is the best movie the Coen brothers haven’t made in years, but that would be selling it short. There are definite echoes of the Coens about it, but it’s fresh and original, and very much its own creature. The direction, acting, writing, soundtrack and cinematography are all terrif and combine perfectly to make a goddam burster of a film. Don’t miss.
Hell or High Water features: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Australian release date: 27 Oct 2016 (@ Luna, Event and Hoyts in Perth)
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