The western has always been a genre acutely reflective of the current social climate in America, so it seems fitting that as an election year defined by class divide draws to a close, this late contender for 2016’s best film centres around ideas of poverty, community, and distrust of institutions. Having made a name for himself with the brutal prison drama ‘Starred Up’ in 2013, director David Mackenzie confirms his talent with this tale of two brothers tearing across the state of Texas on a bank robbing spree.
The audience are dropped immediately into the heat of action as Toby and his fresh out of jail brother, Tanner, approach a bank in the kind of small Texan town which looks as though its best days are far behind it. Similar locations throughout the story enforce an atmosphere of a land very much in decline. Passing by a wall graffitied with the words ‘3 tours of Iraq but no bail out for me’, the film wears its themes on its sleeves, voicing the sense of injustice that burns through much of heartland America. The brothers execute the robbery and set in motion a series of holds ups across the state that seems unlikely to conclude in a happy ending.
Pausing for breath after a frenetic opening sequence, we discover that it’s more than the simple pursuit of octane that drives our two protagonists. Toby, a divorced father of 2 sons, has recently inherited the family ranch… and all the mortgage debt it is saddled with. There is an imminently impending deadline for which all money owed to the bank must be paid or the property will be seized. In a darkly comic irony, Toby plans to pay back Texas Midlands Bank with their own money, taken at gunpoint from multiple branches. In the words of his dodgy-in-a-likable-way lawyer: “What could be more Texan than that?” His dream is to break the cycle of poverty handed down from generation to generation, to leave his sons a house on a piece of land that they own. His older brother Tanner, not the kind of guy who seems likely to die of old age, is all in.
Both Chris Pine (as Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner) put in among the best performances of their careers to date. Their chemistry feels genuine and the two actors entirely convince as brothers, gestures and glances often replacing words. Anchored by this relationship, Hell or High Water is often surprisingly tender for a film about armed robbery.
On the opposite side of the equation, in pursuit of the two criminals are two Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The pair provides much of the film’s comedic relief, squabbling all the way as they attempt to predict where the brothers might hit next. Jeff Bridges hurls a slew of racist jokes at his half American Indian, half Mexican partner that only Jeff Bridges could pull off in a way that comes across as affectionate, rather than conjuring images of men in ghostly white hoods.
The films greatest strength is in creating two sets of friendships that the audience warm to, and then having them collide in a situation where only one can prevail. It is a pleasant relief to see a story devoid of goodies and baddies. David Mackenzie embraces the humanity in each character; everyone has their motives, everyone has their flaws. Big questions are left satisfyingly unanswered, the audience left to ponder some uncomfortable thoughts. ‘How far would you go for family?’ ‘Can a selfless, loving act be evil?’
Coming in at 1 hour 43 minutes, the film feels even shorter in viewing. Hell or High Water thrives in its simplicity, humming along with a sense of foreboding inevitability. For a film of efficient understatement, it packs a solid emotional punch. A dark horse contender come awards season.
This review was written by Daniel White