“You’d be within your rights to shoot me,” Jeff Bridges drawls towards the end of Hell or High Water. Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, Texas Ranger, just three weeks from retirement and pretty much what you would expect to see when you open the dictionary to ‘grizzled.’
With the brash remake of The Magnificent Seven riding in over the horizon, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water has beaten them to the punch by turning in one of the best Westerns since the Coen brothers set their own monumental game of cat and mouse over a similarly arid Texan scrubland.
Hell or High Water is led by brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively, as they rob a series of banks across a swathe of the Lone Star State. Pine is rangy and laconic, occasionally launching into crackling electric storms of energy when his temper rises. Foster is the wild card. “How did you stay out of prison for a year?” Pine asks in wonderment at one stage. “It’s been hard,” Foster admits somewhat sheepishly.
They’re raising money to buy back the family ranch from the bank, which will foreclose on the homestead at the end of the week. Instead of black-hatted bandits we have besuited bank managers; fountain pens for six-shooters.
Mackenzie’s Wild West is no less ruthless than the one to which John Wayne brought his own brand of justice to fifty years ago, but this time the enemy doesn’t come whooping and hollering. “I’ve been poor all my life…it’s a sickness,” Pine utters in quiet resignation, and we see the evidence in the billboards for debt services and quick loans, which erupt bubonically along the highway. This film is as much a harsh invective against a system which drives good men to desperate acts as it is a story as old as Cain and Abel.
It’s an indicator of Hell or High Water’s smarts that it can raise a half smile at itself without ever compromising the fierce integrity of its central message. Jeff Bridges’ partner is Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), half Comanche and half Mexican and thus subject to twice the light-hearted racial abuse that Bridges heaps upon him. Parker reminds Bridges that this land was stolen from his own ancestors not so long ago, and there’s no small degree of grim satisfaction as he watches the descendants of those thieves have that same land pulled away by a vortex whirled into being by their own greed.
Our two pairs of cops and robbers put in a quartet of fantastic performances. Bridges is, of course, a magnetic presence, with creaking bones and a sardonic wit which hardly covers his evident terror at soon having nothing to do but sit on his front porch and watch the world go by. Pine is the stand-out, all dark eyes and uncompromising jaw, a man who’s planted his feet against the world and has no choice but to keep his face set towards what he long ago decided was the right thing.
Around them are an orbit of wonderful minor characters; waitresses, cowpunks and gamblers, who bring these two-horse towns and the roads in-between to living, breathing life. Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote the screenplay for Sicario) has a gift for natural and engaging dialogue which he spreads equally among all involved. Hardly a scene goes by which doesn’t contain at least one great line, and he has a former actor’s eye for knowing when silence can say more than dialogue.
And like Sicario, this is a film which knows how to let the landscape become its own character. It’s not just nature, the endless plains and billows of wildfire smoke pluming in the distance, but it’s the diners and tarmac and steel windmills shrieking in the breeze. Maintaining such a taut thriller with such a fully realised sense of place is harder than it looks – most big-budget offerings come from the ‘running past the Eiffel Tower during a shoot-out’ school of scene-setting – but in allowing the environment to unfold so languidly, with a few perfectly insightful vignettes, Mackenzie pulls it off.
It’s a film as lean as the barrel of a rifle, with a fearless aim and the cinematic intelligence to follow it through. The title is the worst thing about this movie; in all other respects this is a powerful contender for film of the summer. 4/5