This mesmerising modern western in the Cormac McCarthy mould has Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers on a crime spree with more to it than meets the eye, whilst Jeff Bridges is the shrewd old Texas Ranger who, a few days from retirement, gets obsessed with taking them down.
Director David Mackenzie’s last film, Starred Up, was a haunting depiction of life behind bars which treated the audience as adults and drew you into its world not by taking you by the hand but rather making you follow. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous film was last year’s Sicario, a nail-bitingly intense thriller about the escalating drug war on the U.S./Mexican border. Hell or High Water more than equals both these excellent films.
The film is set in an America-in-decline Texas that mourns the modern world; this is a dirty, sweaty place and the characters that inhabit this world are just as gritty. All the performances are brilliantly unglamorous. Chris Pine plays against type as the unkempt and haunted but intelligent Toby. Audiences will be used to him playing handsome, dashing leads in huge Hollywood blockbusters but here, although he can’t completely hide his charms, is a film star maturing into a bona fide actor. Behind Toby’s eyes, we can see years of disappointment, regret, and stinging pain, and as we learn more about him we have more questions until his motivations become crystal clear.
Ben Foster has been the best thing about many a movie over the years, even a few bad ones. Here his talents are fully utilized as the manic, charismatic older brother Tanner. He is brash and impulsive, his motivations even more unclear than Toby’s. Pine underplays his part brilliantly giving Foster the room to really nail his more flashy part, creating an explosive energy that feels like real danger. They are both brilliant and even better together. The brothers’ relationship is complicated and you’re never quite sure if this alliance could suddenly be broken.
Another authentic relationship is between the two Texas Rangers on the brothers’ trail. The ever-reliable Jeff Bridges gets one of his best roles in years as Marcus, an old Texan with a twinkle in his eye. Dreading retirement and showing a natural verve for detective work, Marcus clearly gets great joy from his police work which makes his imminent retirement all the more uncomfortable and restless. His low-key relationship with Gil Birmingham’s Alberto, his part-Comanche, part-Mexican partner (in verbal sparring and police work) is one of the film’s delights. Alberto gives as good as he gets and although the barbs do have stings, the pair have a real warmth.
In a ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore’ kind of way, Mackenzie gets the tone just right, harnessing a broody moodiness with some wry commentary on the state of America and some cracking moments of humour and warmth. The film opens with a frenetic bank robbery and then settling into a slow thoughtful pace that lets you linger with the characters, relationships, and setting. And then every so often we suddenly get an exhilarating action sequence, all the more exciting due to the comfortable pace before it. The cinematography is beautifully bleak, perfectly painting a stark picture of small towns and grimy, lived-in interiors. Sheridan’s script allows us to piece together the story by giving us snatches of information throughout the film and presents some great observations often through humour. As with Sicario, Sheridan manages to keep things unpredictable throughout as Hell or High Water twists and turns to its spine-tingling conclusion.
Words by Hamza Mohsin
Read our exclusive interview with Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie.