Review: Why Hell or High Water is one of the best films we'll see all year
This gripping contemporary western is one of the best films we'll see all year, says our film critic
Published 10/09/2016 | 07:00
In Edwin S Porter's 1903 short 'The Great Train Robbery', which is generally agreed to have been the first western ever made, masked men stole money at gunpoint and were pursued at length by a furious posse. That neatly sums up the plot of Hell or High Water, which may be set in the gloomy present but is a western in all but name if you're prepared to substitute Fords and Chevrolets for horses.
But while Mr Porter's film ended badly for the villains, who were gunned down by a gleeful mob, David Mackenzie's moody thriller inhabits a far more ambiguous moral universe.
In the badlands of west Texas, two men with covered faces hold up a small-town bank, demanding all the money in the tills. "Y'all are new at this, I'm guessin'," an elderly female teller comments wryly, noting that the robbers seem nervous: but they're not messing around, and break the nose of the manager once he arrives. They get away with a tidy fortune, and double their money by hitting another bank the same morning.
They are Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), brothers who have embarked on their crime spree for very different reasons. In snatches of banter, we're given a picture of a deprived and brutal childhood: Toby has an itchy trigger finger, a string of convictions and has just emerged from a lengthy spell in jail.
Toby's no angel either, and he's the brains behind the plan. He has two children he never sees, and hopes to steal $200,000 to pay off family debts and set them up for life. His sins will not be theirs, he seems to be reasoning, and they will be spared what he calls "the disease of poverty". He wants clean raids with as little violence as possible, but Tanner's rash and unpredictable, an adrenaline junkie, and ready to start shooting at the drop of a hat.
Their crimes are quick, and well thought-out, and perplex local law enforcement. Not Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) however: a grizzled, seen-it-all Texas Ranger, he's about to retire but is determined to catch these latter-day outlaws if it's the last thing he does. After correctly surmising that the culprits are beginners, however well organised, and are sure to slip up at some point, Marcus and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) set off across country after them, trying to second guess their next target.
Alberto is half Comanche, and he and Marcus trade vaguely racist insults to pass the time as they coast through ghost towns baked by searing midday heat. Poverty is a constant backdrop in Mr Mackenzie's film, and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens' crisp compositions knowingly evoke the dust bowl photos of Dorothea Lange.
The landscape the good and bad guys cross is lined with abandoned homesteads and boarded up shops, and the difference with this recession is that entire communities may never recover from it.
It's from this vista of despair that Toby wishes to lift his family, by means not morally defensible but understandable at least. But someone has to stand up for law and order, and he and Marcus seem bound for a decisive confrontation.
Hell or High Water reminds one at times of the Coen brothers' 'No Country for Old Men', a comparison that can only be complementary. But it's not so dark, less opulently despairing in tone: Taylor Sheridan's brilliant script sparkles with colour, and wit, and even Marcus seems quietly amused by the bank robbing, which after all is a long-standing western tradition. So, in Texas, is gun ownership, and during one raid an elderly customer takes pot shots at the brothers with a Magnum.
"I do love west Texas," Marcus says wryly at one point, watching the antics of an impromptu posse.
Jeff Bridges is terrific as the wily law-man, who cracks wise but is tough as a tree, and Ben Foster positively fizzes with energy as the volatile and clearly unhinged Tanner. And Chris Pine, whose blinding good looks have led some to assume he can't act, is wonderfully opaque and unreadable as the architect of all this chaos. It's quite a film.
Films coming soon...
Bridget Jones' Baby (Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey); The Young Offenders (Chris Walley, Alex Murphy, PJ Gallagher); The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr); The Infiltrator (Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger)
Hell or High Water