How the West was lost long ago
An elegiac - yet hilarious - look at a dying way of life in modern-day Texas, director David Mackenzie's 'Hell or High Water' is a new classic
Once upon a time the bad guys wore black hats, the good guys white and 'Injuns' were the enemy. But that was a long time ago and a lot has changed.
The scope of that change is neatly encapsulated in one particular scene in Hell or High Water. Newly minted bank robbers, middle-aged brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull up to a gas station in rural Texas.
When Toby goes inside to pay, a cowboy emerges and has a muttered conversation with his white horse as what can only be described as a venomously green car, with two wannabe gangstas, arrives in the forecourt.
For a minute, before the cowboy rides off, everything you need to know about modern life in rural Texas is framed, like a triptych, in one scene. It sounds grim - and the reality is grim - but thanks to a brilliant script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and the flawless direction of David Mackenzie (winner of countless awards) this is a movie that makes you laugh when you know you should be weeping.
When I meet Mackenzie it turns out that the horse and rider weren't in the original script. "I happened to see a horse when we went scouting for locations, and a guy buying liquor, and thought 'This has got to be in the movie.' I shot that scene in one take - it was a 'Western Tableau'. That's what a director does, take a great scene from the script and expands it."
Hell or High Water is so finely nuanced it's hard to believe it wasn't directed by a native son of the Lone Star State. Mackenzie, "a Navy brat," settled in his parents' home of Perthshire in Scotland at the age of 12 and now resides and works primarily in Glasgow. "I have a love-hate relationship with Glasgow," he says, "due to the f**king weather. Glasgow has a lot of soul to it," he continues. "And LA sometimes struggles to find its soul," he concludes tactfully.
When Mackenzie was growing up, he had no connections to the entertainment industry and wanted to become a soldier. "I tried to join the army when I was 18 but I failed because my hearing wasn't good enough. I'd been a rebel at school and I'd given my Dad quite a lot of grief and it was mainly to make amends to him. My heart wasn't really in it. I'd already discovered cinema." (The film is dedicated to both the director's parents, who died within four months of each other last year.)
On the surface, Mackenzie's ninth feature looks a lot like a Western but it isn't, as Mackenzie explains. "It's got Western themes and to some extent it's about the passing of the old West." It's also a heist film, a comedy, and a double 'buddy movie' - and, as in all cop-related buddy movies, Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is only weeks from retirement.
Mackenzie does a good job of manipulating the viewer's sympathies. One minute we're rooting for the newbie bank robbers, the next we're right behind the rangers, Marcus (Bridges gives one of the best performances of his career) and his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
The glory days of the wild west are a thing of the past. As Toby and Tanner drive through the open plains that are the very backbone of American mythology, the landscape is dotted with signs offering cheap loans and advertising closing down sales. The cowboy, who symbolised the American dream of freedom and the open range, is now struggling to survive.
With the sands shifting so often and no one wearing a black hat, I ask Mackenzie "Who's the baddie?"
"That's a hard question to answer and that's what this film is about - who's good, who's bad… I know who the baddie is but I want to let the audience decide."
I wonder if Mackenzie is so in touch with the material and the landscape because there are parallels between Scots and Native Americans - both being displaced and outlawed. The director laughs and agrees that both have suffered from "displacement" but goes on to say "I think there's parallels between the Scots and the Texans," (he makes the point that Scottish identity is not homogenous). "They're self-reliant, tough, generous, protective of their own… those things are recognisable traits."
The casting of Hell or High Water is impeccable. Mackenzie tells me that the film came together "organically" and that he couldn't imagine any other actors in the roles. Of star Jeff Bridges, he says "he does it really beautifully. He was great to work with, superb to work with, just such a creative guy, such a giving and fun guy. And a great improviser, just playful and willing to go the distance."
He has high praise for all of the cast, including those in "minor roles, and minor is the wrong word, the ones that aren't in it for very long, I should choose my words better, are just superb." It's hard to single out any one performance, but Margaret Bowman, who plays an elderly waitress, totally steals the scene she's in. "She's 84," Mackenzie tells me, "and did a brilliant job. Fantastic."
As this is a film that revolves around a 'cops and robbers' plot there's obviously violence, but it's never gratuitous or glamorised. "I'm keen to try… to make the violence in this film feel as messy and un-choreographed and brutal and real as possible and not in any way balletic and glamorised. I'm a bit uncomfortable with… modern American cartoon violence, which is not right, and so it was a bit of a challenge in this film, dealing with all the guns and how to represent that in a way that makes it feel real."
Another theme of the film is about family and the lengths people will go to for their kin. Mackenzie has a 12-year-old daughter and two sons aged 11 and four. ("It's a lot easier directing than bringing up a family," he tells me.) I ask him what lengths he would go to for his children. "That's a very good question and you don't know the answer until the lines get drawn... I often think about it."
In the final showdown between two of the main protagonists, both wear a white hat. "And a black shirt," Mackenzie adds. "Perhaps it's overly symbolic, but they're almost wearing the same costume." A reminder perhaps that the 'good' guy can't exist without the 'bad' guy and sometimes it's hard to know the difference.
'Hell or High Water' is on general release from September 9
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