(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. David Mackenzie, Writ. Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey
Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan returns with another intense, visceral, and potent crime drama with Hell or High Water. This crime drama is one lean, mean flick. Don’t go in expecting the adrenaline-pumping and heart-palpitating breathlessness of Sicario, though, since Hell or High Water takes an older man’s view of the world as grizzled old Sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looks at the decline of the American south as he nears retirement. The film, like the wise sheriff, is pensive and contemplative with its holster at the ready. Hell or High Water presents a parched America that is no country for old men and the divide between wrongdoers and victims is something that an ornery sheriff can no longer see with a fine line. It’s one hell of a movie.
Hell or High Water gives a Robin Hood tale for the age of Walter White as brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob a string of banks to save their family property. The marvel of their plan, however, is its post-Occupy Wall Street resonance as the brothers aim to hit only banks within the Texas Midlands branch, which is the bank that aims to foreclose on the property of their late mother, and pay the institution back with its own money. The odds of corporate America are stacked against the average citizen and there’s nothing left to do but take back from the invisible bandits looting from the working class every day. What remains is a land of lawlessness, a new frontier, and a new Deadwood equipped with automatic weapons and technology that keeps baddies ahead of the fuzz.
As the boys hit up bank upon bank, their efforts seem like the work of petty thugs as they perform grab and dash robberies on small joints, nabbing bills of minor denominations. They encounter a range of American mindsets young and old in their robberies as confident tellers nag their stupidity while complying with their requests. Old men uphold their right to bear arms and try to play hero during the heists, while disenfranchised small town residents turn a blind eye to the boys’ business. They’re only stealing from the crookedest of the crooked, after all.
Pine and Foster make a fine pair of unconventional anti-heroes, too, so that Hell or High Water leaves no true villain in its band of westerners and outlaws. Pine brings a headstrong conscientious to Toby, the mastermind of the plan and the brother with the greater stake in paying their mother’s debt and moving forward with his life. Having seen so much suffering and loss, Toby embodies a class of Americans fighting for the last scraps of their livelihood. His intentions are noble, too, as he aims to cash in on the oil percolating under the land and leave a family property that will sustain generations to come. Unlike the machines running America, he thinks beyond the present. Pine brings a rugged nobility to the character and a prom king’s charm, which makes the film’s increasingly violent altercations all the more compelling as the few good people resort to evil deeds.
Foster, on the other hand, is explosive and unhinged as the violently hedonistic Tanner. A career criminal, Tanner mostly robs for sport and Foster embellishes the hotheaded machismo of his character’s high as he gets off on the rush of power and violence. There’s an altruistic element to Tanner, too, which Foster smartly underplays underneath his brazen energy as the ex-con doggedly pursues a score that he can’t cash out. He too wants the satisfying legacy that Toby can leave behind with his family. As Hell or High Water careens towards its bloody finale, Toby becomes empowered by the realisation that the myth of American greed is no way to live. A man who only values money has both nothing and everything to lose.
As strong as Pine and Foster are, though, Hell or High Water is truly Bridges’ show. He’s mastered the role of the coarse sheriff in films like True Grit after playing a string of roles throughout his career that inform such a wise character, but his joke-cracking lawman is a seasoned philosopher who sees too much violence in a world that should be slowing down. Like Tommy Lee Jones’s world-weary sheriff in No Country for Old Men, but with a much better sense of humour, Marcus undergoes an awakening in Hell or High Water that challenges his conception of right and wrong while upholding his belief in righteousness and justice. He thrives from the hunt and endures as a dying breed of a man who lives by the gun, but knows the gravity behind each bullet that leaves his barrel. Especially key to Marcus’s gradual waking up to the changing landscape of America is his partner Albert (Gil Birmingham), a mixed-race Comanche-Tejano who might be the wokest character the world of the western has ever seen. Bridges and Birmingham have excellent chemistry that complements the electric power of Pine and Foster, as the relationship between Marcus and Alberto becomes the emotional core of the film that complicates its portrait of the brothers’ quest.
Key to this convergence in perspective and allegiance is an idyll pit stop in a small Southern Podunk town where Marcus and Alberto rest their boots while waiting for the boys to make their next hit. After a moment of dark, slice of life humour that rings of the Coen Brothers sees a crusty old waitress (Margaret Bowmen) serve up a laugh to the steak and potatoes crowd, the cops take a respite in the warm summer night. It’s in this moment that Alberto reflects upon the regression of America and delineates in near-Shakespearean thoughtfulness the warped way of the world that puts the bank robbers on the side of another law. He speaks of cycles of injustice and brings Marcus to the rude realisation that Middle Americans are merely facing the same devastation that his own people encountered years before. America isn’t a country that learns from the sins of its past. Just like Toby, it puts another round in the chamber and cocks itself, ready for action and eager to pounce for the short-term game.
Hell or High Water simmers with this pensiveness, this sense of character and place, as director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) realises the words of Sheridan’s taut script with a fine, objective eye for the power of the land and its local flavours. The film delivers the kind of smart entertainment that simply doesn’t exist in Hollywood anymore as the cops arrive at the end of the line and face the sad reality to which the brothers and other Americans have already woken up: the myth of the frontier, of Manifest Destiny and limitless possibilities, was simply that—a myth. Cinematographer Gilles Nuttgens, who shot many Deepa Mehta films like Water and Midnight’s Children, soaks up the sun as the arid landscapes of Hell or High Water give rise to a thirsty and restless America. The bluesy score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis haunts with its acoustic ballads and elegies for a dying land.
Like a good American T-bone steak, Hell or High Water is a thick cut of meat without an ounce of fat on its bone. The film simmers with restless violence as this thematically rich film ruminates upon a world at a crossroads. If 2007’s No Country for Old Men foresaw and America on the verge of collapse, then Hell or High Water wades into the shell-shocked aftermath of a country that’s endured an awful self-inflicted trauma. There’s ultimately hope for America if, come hell or high water, it awakens to see who the bad guys were all along. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.
Hell or High Water opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on Friday, August 19 from VVS Films.
It expands across Canada August 26.