Hell or High Water is a noir-infused neo-Western about two brothers who go on a rampage of robbery. They hit Texas Midlands Banks, in revenge for threats of foreclosure that could take the family farm. Toby, played by Chris Pine, and Tanner, played by Ben Foster, carry out a series of bank jobs. These early morning heists are insanely well planned, with three banks hit in a day and resulting in a haul of unmatched bills that are also unmarred by exploding dye-packs. They bury the getaway cars, and head from West Texas to a Oklahoma casino to launder the cash. If you’re planning on robbing a bank, their plan is ingenious.
Obviously, the Texas Rangers want to catch the robbers. Two Rangers–Marcus, played by Jeff Bridges as the grizzled about-to-retire veteran, and Mexican/Indian Marco, played by Gil Birmingham—are soon on their trail. Of course, there is constant racially motivated jokes by Marcus while they try to track down the guilty parties. At one point, Alberto protests at the running stream of anti-Native American slurs, saying “you know, I’m part Mexican too,” to which Marcus replies, “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.” There’s plenty of time in between to take the piss out of fundamentalist Christians by Marcus as well.
Bridges’ performance is excellent, and hearkens back to some of the fine films he made in the 70s and 80s, including Heaven’s Gate and The Last Picture Show to name just two. In fact, the first few robberies occur in the same towns where The Last Picture Show was filmed. Chris Pine (better known as Capt. Kirk from the Star Trek films) is seen here in his best role yet, which he really inhabits and is pretty unrecognisable. Ben Foster, a promising young actor who has been someone to watch ever since his part in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, is also fantastic as the more unpredictable violent brother. Gil Birmingham is a fairly new face in film but turns in a fine performance.
The script is by Taylor Sheridan, the actor from Sons of Anarchy, whose screenplay for 2015’s Sicario and this film have given him a rising profile as a writer. He also appears in a short cameo (and has recently started directing.) Like many of the best American genre pieces, it’s directed by someone from outside the US. David Mackenzie, the Scottish director responsible for Young Adam and Starred Up, shows that he has a real feel for genre. Surprisingly, not one minute of the film was shot in Texas—it’s all been made in neighbouring New Mexico, but it stands in well.
Hell or High Water works as a western-noir with a subtle political context for the current era of banksters. It’s very clever in how it appeals both sides of the political spectrum: the characters have been failed by the government and the banks. It’s certainly an interesting film to start the Trump era with. It has a distinctive feel and sense of place, and has something to say about where the country is heading.
The score deserves a special mention. Nick Cave has been creating music in that world for since his days in his post-punk band The Birthday Party contributes instrumentals written with Warren Ellis. Additional music includes appropriate country songs from Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt. The Blu-Ray contains three featurettes, red carpet bits, and a Q&A with the director and actors of the main film. All of these features are also available on US Blu-Ray but the UK disc gets an exclusive interview with David Mackenzie.