Director : David Mackenzie
Writer : Taylor Sheridan
There’s a lot to like about Hell or Highwater. Having brothers act as a team is a handy shortcut to establishing loyalty, and having one wild and the other more considered is always a fun dynamic. It’s important to get the cops right too, and what’s better than having one just about to retire? Throw in a little bit of a Robin Hood sensibility, set it in modern times but with a clear memory of the old West, and then bake it all together slow in the West Texas heat.
The setting is a time and place where farmers fear they will be the last generation on the land, the roads in town are still shared by cars and horses and banks are foreclosing. Many of the smaller branches don’t invest in security so there is no video of the brothers first two robberies, but when Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) get on the scent, you know things are about to escalate.
Jeff Bridges has been a lawman before. His Rooster Cogburn was a powerhouse, but he plays this with a gentle twinkle. He relishes the chase, maybe because it will be his last one, but maybe also because it will give him a chance to go out with his boots on and save him from a retirement he dreads. But in the meantime he teases his partners mixed ethnicity and manages to make the racism seem affectionate and he genuinely enjoys his interaction with the locals. In Texas, there is a sense of community policing that must be a necessity when everyone is armed.
All of the locals understand violence and the brothers saw their fair share of it growing up. Their father was physically abusive and older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) eventually shot him, leaving Toby (Chris Pine) to look after their ailing mother while he was in prison.
Early on, Toby alludes to robbing banks for his sons, but we have to wait until later to work out exactly what he’s planning. Pine plays the compromised moral centre of the film well, but it’s Foster who will likely receive the accolades. He doesn’t just play the loose cannon brother, he is him. No acting is evident and when Toby asks him how he stayed out of jail for twelve months you believe him when he says ‘it’s been difficult’. There is nothing Hollywood in his hairline, paunch or choice of sunglasses and while he plays loose, he’s not crazed. He’s a guy who has taken a tough choice, paid a price for it, but isn’t altogether upset about the path his life is taking. Back Ben Foster for Best Supporting Actor.
The original version of the film was named Comanche, and the indigenous plight is an ongoing theme. It’s an interesting thought that no-one really owns land, eventually someone else will come along and take it from you. For the American Indians it was the white settlers, and now the banks are taking it from them. Taylor Sheridan’s script does a nice job of showcasing how the banks value revenue streams over justice.
If Hell or High Water came out in earlier decades it may have been lost in the crowd, but it says a lot about movies now that this is being talked about as the best movie of 2016. It’s not a tent-pole comic book movie and it’s not a quirky independent, just an excellent combination of casting, dialogue and plot that hits that sweet spot right in the middle.
A Must See