On the surface Hell Or High Water’s central story about two bank robbing brothers who blaze through Texas with the law in hot pursuit is nothing particularly original. British Director David McKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) take the deceptively simple premise and enrich it with depth, complexity and insight.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of estranged brothers who are reunited after their mother’s death. Both are in dire personal and financial situations. When the bank threaten to foreclose on their family land, any hope for the future appears to diminish. Fuelled by desperation, they concoct a plan to rob small-town branches of the very bank they owe money to. While intent on not hurting anyone, each job simmers with the threat of violence, especially when the dangerous and unpredictable side of Tanner comes to the fore. The robbers soon attract the attention of wily veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As the Rangers close in on the brothers, the film builds to an enticing showdown.
The film’s cleverly paced, laconic script and strong characterisation are what impress most. Genre conventions are utilised but cliches are mostly avoided due to the strength of the writing. Shootouts and robberies are unconventionally played out with an irreverent quality reminiscent of the Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men). The financial crisis of present day America is at the root of the story with the bank being the most clear cut villain of the piece. While the film structurally and visually feels like a classic Western, the themes and motivations are distinctly contemporary. One scene which involves a group of cowboys herding cattle against the backdrop of the wide open plains is particularly potent. “It’s the 21st century and I’m doing this shit”, one of them laments. Its a telling snapshot of a dying American dream, the myth of the old west kicked in the dust. The performances are very good. Pine has the chiselled good looks and brooding intensity of a classic western anti hero. His haunted expression and sparse use of dialogue are massively effective. Foster is impressive as the unhinged, wild card Tanner who seems to be hell bent on self destruction. On the opposite side of the law, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are on top form as well. While the pair bicker constantly, their genuine affection and biting dialogue provide the film with injections of well delivered comic relief. It’s essentially a male dominated story but the women on the periphery also make telling contributions. Marin Ireland as Toby’s ex-wife and Katy Mixon as dreamy diner waitress Jenny Ann, compliment the main cast very well.
Many films of this ilk tend to go down the route of a bullet riddled, bloody climax but Hell or High Water takes a more nuanced and considered direction. The pay off is one of the most well executed final scenes in recent memory. The stark, breathtaking beauty of the West Texas landscape is beautifully captured, playing a vital role in the action and the atmospheric score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds a powerful extra dimension. The soundtrack is also peppered with outlaw country songs from the likes of Waylon Jennings and Gillian Welch which creates a very precise tone and sense of place. This is a multi-layered film of distinction and class. Hugely entertaining, thematically timely and emotionally charged, Hell or High Water kicks some serious ass.