The reason why movies that came to be known as the ‘old west’ genre came to be so popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s was the tense, dangerous atmosphere which elevated a simple story of people pitted against each other by circumstance or desire. In Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie tells such a simple story of two brothers and a cop on the hunt, their motivations and tenacity made to resound in our minds through the bleak environment and the discomforting tension pouring out of every scene. Embracing the formidable setting and the sepia palette that comes with it, it is an exercise in restraint, never flinching in the face of the terror it creates, and not allowing you the use of more than the edge of your seat.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard are brothers, reunited after many years when the elder one, Tanner, is released from prison. Diving straight into the story, the film opens with the first morning of their heist, as they cruise the expanse of the dessert robbing banks before the customers come in. After the first chain of robberies, the case is handed to Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), as the FBI does not want to waste its resources chasing after drawer money. Despite their detailed plan and resolve against harming anyone unnecessarily, events transpire that lead the brothers into a tighter spot than they have ever found themselves. Not waiting for introductions or histories of its characters, Hell or High Water is a steadily paced film that gradually unravels to reveal its secrets, which stay second place to the story at hand in any case. This is a film that operates through conversations between its characters and surprisingly little exposition: I could tell you what each character is about, and their individual drives for the heist, or you could sink your teeth in, and let the film take you through it, detail by detail at the appropriate time.
David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan – the director and writer – are easily the stars of Hell or High Water, their understanding of grounded fears and character motivations, coupled with a real talent for visualising wretched atmospheres helping them bring the old country western into the modern era, in an admittedly less strange fashion than the Coen Brothers. This is a film that is as determined as its characters, not in robbing banks or hunting down people who go around robbing banks, but in grabbing the attention of its audience and tightening the grip with every passing breath. Knowing when to look away and when to linger on the more evocative images, Mackenzie tunes the entire film to radiate the same feelings clouding the minds of its protagonists: no shot or movement of the camera wasted without purpose. The excellent writing also mirrors this sense of despair and tragedy, not just contained to the brothers but seeping into every person and interaction, signifying the destruction of the American dream. Although set in the present day, there is very little in the film that roots the story to a particular time, perhaps making a statement on the stagnancy of dreams brought on by the ever-increasing reach of the banks.
Coming to the people in front of the camera, Jeff Bridges absolutely steals the show as the hardened ranger getting his boots out for one last hunt before he retires his uniform, playing equally to both the strengths and weaknesses of his character. Worn out, slightly racist and ever conflicted between his stubborn mind and deteriorating body, Marcus is a man who revels in the excitement of the hunt and is constantly trying to convince himself, as much as others around him, that he is nowhere close to the end of the road. A role demanding an almost calculated temperament, Bridges carries the burden of his character’s years in his eyes and actions rather than dialogue, showing himself to have been the perfect choice. On the other side of the story are brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, the former astonishing me with his penchant for subtleties and measured execution, something missing from all his previous roles. He takes the place of our eyes into this devastating story, grounding his brother from actions uncalled for, and forms the moral core that lets itself be dragged down for the sake of his family. It is the captivating interplay between these three egos and the driving forces behind them that makes for the spine-tingling drama in Hell or High Water, which stands on its own, even without the haunting direction.
Every scene in this film demonstrates the calculated restraint of the filmmaker, as we are made to take in every moment of the drawling wilderness, on which the camera lingers to cast us with the same desolate spell haunting our protagonists. This provides great contrast when paired with and followed by scenes of high-stakes action, which colours them too with a feeling at the back of your head telling you there isn’t a happy end. The music is composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who know the sounds of the western wilderness well, having before worked together on the 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and they put this experience to best use, fine-tuning the hopelessness of their mission to the point that you can almost see the tumbleweed roll past. Hell or High Water does not aim high or attempt to conceive something original, yet its methodical making understands exactly what is required and when, and crafts for us a taut, tense and captivating-as-hell western that does not lose itself amidst the gunshots.