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Review: Hell or High Water the western walks the walk and talks the talk

BY Mike McCahill

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Review: Hell or High Water the western walks the walk and talks the talk

Ranger Jeff Bridges pursues two bank-robbing brothers across Texas in this absorbing, characterful thriller from British director David Mackenzie.

You'd be forgiven for thinking American cinema had all but forgotten about making this kind of film: a slow-burn thriller aimed primarily at mature audiences.

Hell or High Water appears very much a Western and part of its appeal is certainly retro—in location, iconography, and casting. It’s also clearly unfolding in the here-and-now, against a backdrop of post-crunch impoverishment. Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan are skilled in taking elements of the comfortingly familiar, tossing in the odd curveball, and shuffling until old becomes new again.



The catalysts of the movie are Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), brothers engaged in a death-or-glory bank-robbing spree through West Texas in the immediate wake of their mother’s death.

Their motives beyond money-grabbing aren’t initially clear, but the pair have a manner and momentum that makes them fun to watch, and an unusual MO besides: they bury their getaway vehicles in the backyard of the Tanner family farm before laundering their loot through the region’s Native American casinos. 

However, they’re pursued by one Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a dogged Texas Ranger so much of the old school that he fondly uses such terms as “half-breed” to describe his native sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

That Marcus is days from retirement is but one of those comfortingly familiar elements the director and writer have woven in, another would be Jeff Bridges himself. The minute the actor appears on screen we know this investigation will take as long as it needs to. Alberto speculates that Marcus is dragging matters out just to stay on the job a little longer, sensing it might be enjoyable to stick around and see how it all plays out. Suffice to say, it is.

The narrative is lived-in yet still lively, much like Ranger Hamilton himself forever working some new angle to get closer to his quarry. Mackenzie has a sturdy building block in Sheridan’s script—as rich as it is in local colour and vernacular. “Were they black or white?” Marcus asks one witness. “Their skin or their souls?” comes the response. (“I gotta s*** like an old goat”, declares Tanner at one point, somewhat less poetically.)

Whichever side of the law his camera’s on, you can feel Mackenzie enjoying the company of these characters and these actors.

This may qualify as the century’s lowest-octane chase movie—constantly pulling over for sundown confabs on front porches and gas station forecourts—but the relaxed approach allows the characters time to reveal themselves. The brooding Toby emerges as a damaged ladies’ man (seriousness becomes Pine here after his all-action performance as Captain Kirk), the wilder Tanner tempering his recklessness with a knowing humour.

There’s so much yammering that you begin to wonder if the film’s true subject is talk and that these robberies were conceived as an excuse for the characters to hang out and shoot the breeze with one another.

Certain scenes suggest what might have happened had the much-trumpeted Pacino-DeNiro meeting in Heat taken place not in a coffee shop but a retirement home rec room. As Marcus wonders, when Alberto grouchily orders him to leave his motel suite and watch his sports elsewhere on his own, “Where’s the fun in that?” At every turn, Mackenzie spots the pleasures companionship can offer when out on the road or facing a tight spot.

This attention to companionship extends to the tragedy lying in wait when the bullets finally start flying, reducing free-flowing conversation to pained grunts or, worse still, deathly silence. Yet Mackenzie's optimist enough not to leave us with a bloodbath, but a promise of more chat to come—and I suspect the film will have worked charms enough by this point that most viewers wouldn’t mind being present in some form to eavesdrop.

In its big picture—the wide-open skies and endless Main Streets—Hell or High Water might be taken as a throwback to the Americana of Terrence Malick or Clint Eastwood. But Mackenzie’s biggest achievement here lies in filling each frame with living, breathing, gabbing people—folk acting not out of greed, rather real, recognisable and basic human need.

At a time when our cinemas sometimes feel as though they’ve been overrun by computer-enhanced superheroes, an analogue, old-hat proposition such as this could well seem thrillingly radical.

Hell or High Water is now showing in cinemas across the UK

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