“We ain’t stealing from you. We’re stealing from the bank.”
‘Hell or High Water’ is a masterful modern western merged with a crime-thriller. It serves as an epitaph to a style of life that is dying a slow death – a community being destroyed by the greed that allowed it to be built in the first place. What you are watching is essentially a heist movie served with a side of satire and accompanied by career-best performances. They really don’t make them like this very often.
Toby (Pine) is in need of his brother’s help. Texas Midland Bank is calling in all the debt on their desolate family ranch and foreclosure appears inevitable – something Toby is desperate to avoid as he wants to pass on the land to his two sons. His brother Tanner (Foster) has just been released from a ten-year prison sentence and helps him concoct a scheme to steal from the banks that are trying to take everything from them. After the first robbery Texas Rangers Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Birmingham) are sent to catch the unknown bank robbers. The boys continue their desperate scheme unaware of the ranchers on their trail and the showdown that seems inevitable.
The simplest reason as to why HoHW is so good is that it balances three stories in a manner that is both even-handed and surprisingly fully emphathetic. There’s the tale of family and brotherhood along with a story of partners from different generations and race. Then there’s the tale that links them both and is the foundation of both stories – the brutal and cynical narrative of modern -day Texas Badlands. All three aspects are explored tenderly and with true understanding of the lifestyles of all who cross its screen. The critique and characterisation is so sly and yet so supremely effective, the dialogue allowing for insight into a world many of us may never have pondered with such depth or empathy.
This obviously would have limited impact if the cast did not serve these aspects with the requisite skill required. Thankfully there is not a single weak link in this powerful chain – in no uncertain terms every single actor provides one of, if not *the* best, performance of their careers. Foster makes his trigger-happy borderline-psychotic character fizzle with energy. Tanner is clearly unhinged yet he manages to be somewhat likeable and utterly scene-stealing. Pine is deceptively good as a figure who may have architected the scheme yet seems naive what is required to make it happen. He’s inscrutable from start to finish – a perfect foil to his brother’s frenzy.
On the other side of the coin we have Gil Birmingham finally being given the role he deserves after years of varying bit-part roles. He plays Alberto with a quiet confidence and innate calm. As Toby serves as foil to Tanner, Alberto serves as the acquiescent target of Marcus’s insults. The rapport of their partnership is essentially Marcus making constant pointed comments regarding Alberto’s race, that serve as a sign of his respect and admiration for his younger colleague. Whenever the digs take a nasty edge Alberto is more than capable at serving a wry comeback.
Marcus is due to retire any day yet he isn’t ready to go riding off into the sunset and is desperate to take this chance of his final stand-off. Bridges is terrific in the role and fully deserves acknowledge of this fact in the fast-approaching awards season. Mentions will also be required for the cinematography, script and music. The cinematography manages to highlight the desolate beauty of these parts combines the story lets us see and hear this world crumble before our eyes. It would be easy to show a destroyed town, HoHW is far too clever for that. It takes nuance to be this subtle – to carefully reveal the cracks in the community that have been forming unbeknownst to many, the glue that has been used by some and the disinterest of the banks who plan to drain the well even though it’s dry. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis perfectly score the overriding discontentment and the prevailing sense that the glory days are long gone.
This is an action-crime-thriller Western told with brain and fists. It serves much to think about and one-hell of a right hook.
Dir: David Mackenzie
Country: USA Year: 2016 Run time: 102 minutes
Hell or High Water is in UK cinemas September 9th.