English director David MacKenzie has been flirting with recognition for years, earning buzz for the SWINTON-fronted crime drama Young Adam, the steamy, music-fueled romance Tonight You’re Mine, and his staggering Starred Up, a prison-set drama both brutal and vulnerable that launched Skins star Jack O’Connell. Following that, his most acclaimed movie to date, the Brit filmmaker tackled a new challenge, diving deep into American culture with the heist-centered Western Hell or High Water.
Penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, the film focuses on the bank-robbing Howard brothers of West Texas. The elder, Tanner (Ben Foster) is brash ex-con, who is loyal, reckless and violent. The younger, Toby (Chris Pine) is soft-spoken, smart, and determined that their string of morning heists won’t hurt anyone but the bank, the film’s true baddie. See, this a contemporary Western. While there is an eccentric lawman (Jeff Bridges) dedicated to bringing these marauding bandits to justice, both he and the Howards are on the same losing side.
Mackenzie’s thoughtful pans across desolate small towns reveal shuttered storefronts, repossessed farms, foreclosed homes, and fields on fire, their ranchers futilely pushing scrawny herds across dusty highways to await another danger. This is a country where cowboys are quickly becoming obsolete, thanks to banks that coldly squeeze family farms dry, snatching away their land like white men did generations before to the Native Americans. This comparison is made plain in a resigned monologue of a “half-breed” policeman (Gil Birmingham), who spends much of the movie impatiently shrugging off the casually racist jokes of Bridges’s soon-to-retire sheriff. But more resoundingly, it’s felt in Tanner’s arc, where the angry outcast repeatedly identifies with the Comanches, “Lords of the Plains,” attempting to connect to the homeland he feels being ripped away.
It’s more #problematic to see the plight of impoverished white farmers so earnestly compared to that of the indigenous Americans, who weren’t evicted from their land, but violently ejected, tormented, and murdered. However, Tanner is a recognized asshole (specifically in one hilarious barb involving the weak sauce of Mr. Pibb); his appropriation repeatedly earns him sneers, confrontations, and ultimately a grim comeuppance. And there are few actors out there better at playing a charismatic asshole than Foster. From the moment he breezes onscreen, his energy is frenetic, mesmerizing and contagious. While Pine’s physicality has a languid, measured quality, Foster’s is that of a dog that’s been kicked one too many times, cagey and dangerous.
Those who smirk that the Star Trek hunk is little more than looks and charm will eat their words seeing him here. He sits so comfortably in this place of subdued rage and fierce intelligence, that I repeatedly forgot I was watching Chris Pine, and swore I’d switched over to Timothy Olyphant in Deadwood. Bridges plays a perfect foil to this pair of brooding brothers. With his churlish chuckle, he brings the kind of grumbly levity that Tommy Lee Jones did to No Country For Old Men. Sure, the sheriff’s Indian jokes get old quickly, but they’re meant to, bouncing off of Birmingham’s heavily sighing officer as a reminder of an age nearly gone by. (Tough times, Clint.)
The story bounces between the brothers and the cops on their tail, not at a racing pace, but at a stroll. This is as much a story about bonds of brotherhood, studded with genuine devotion but also silent resentments, as it is about the chase. And Mackenzie lets us settle into each set of partners (in crime and justice), sinking into the worn leather of their histories. As the motives of the Howards begin to come to light, so too does the dreadful sense that no happy ending can be wrought from these men’s final faceoff. And Mackenzie has us wallow in this too, letting the consequences and the pain sink in to haunt us as they will the survivors.
Methodically paced, Hell or High Water envelops audiences in the desperation of its setting, and the attitude of its people, who have authentic grit thanks to the casting of supporting players with character to their faces, and curves (some sensual, some sagged) to their bodies. Mackenzie masterfully embeds us into the lives of his anti-heroes, while weaving a story of moral complexity and chilling compromise. It’s so rich in detail and atmosphere, you’ll marvel that an English auteur spun such a stirring story about good ol’ boys in the new Old West.