by Scott Gentry
Following the tragic death of their mother, formerly estranged brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), reunite upon the discovery that the Texas Midlands Bank is threatening to foreclose on their family’s West Texas farm – land containing mass mounts of oil, ripe for harvest. Enraged, the pair turn the tables upon their tormentors and embark upon a spree of armed bank robberies – pillaging from in particular, local branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Despite their seemingly fool-proof and ironic plan, the brothers did not anticipate the involvement of tenacious Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), leading in their final hunt together as partners.
Subdued in its approach to blistering violence, Hell or High Water (unlike similar cinematic counterparts) often pauses for quiet, measured doses of soulful contemplation, à la No Country For Old Men. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Parker and fellow Texas Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) sit opposite a bank, as they lie in wait to apprehend two suspects tied to a streak of armed bank robberies. Deafening silence is finally broken, when Alberto quietly delivers a line filled with venomous hatred: “All this was my ancestors land. The lease folks took it, and it’s been taken from them. Except, it ain’t no army doing it, it’s those sons of bi***es right there.” Alberto is in fact referring to a branch of the (fictional) Texas Midlands Bank.
In this moment, it became immediately clear that despite being an intense and stylish Neo-Western, Hell or High Water is set apart from the extensive roster of other bank heist thrillers, due to a talented individual: the film’s sole screenwriter. Following his breakout success (writing for the silver screen) with 2015’s socially aware, war on drugs thriller, Sicario, Taylor Sheridan remains a screenwriter with far more on his mind than the design of visually arresting action set pieces or simply gripping narratives.
Instead, Sheridan is – on the face of it – concerned first and foremost with the refreshing incorporation of a form of social realism within his screenplays, which is most evident here. Set within a series of impoverished Texas towns, Sheridan frequently donates precious screen time to a group of disillusioned residents, who bear an intense grievance against the banking community, with one even citing that it has robbed him for thirty years. It isn’t necessarily a revelatory approach to social realism and it may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sheridan himself (he admits it is not an “F-you to the banks”), but this occasionally on-the-nose attempt to place characters within the shoes of actual people creates a sense of authenticity, and refreshingly equips the narrative and characters with actual humanity.
Here, audiences are actually granted time to grow with and understand the motives behind these convoluted characters, as Sheridan incorporates protracted sequences featuring pertinent exposition, essential character development and naturalistic dialogue. It helps that British director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shoot gorgeous sequences that do not end abruptly, but dwell upon the reactions of characters, inviting audiences to truly understand what they are experiencing. Without these understandably extended sequences, the film’s subsequent revelations and developments simply would not hold any real weight to them, preventing audiences from connecting with them on a human basis.
Akin to Sicario, Sheridan’s screenplay yet again possesses a clear goal: to make the audience question who they should be rooting for. Within this cruel world he has designed, Sheridan is dedicated to presenting a series of characters, but without judgement. In an interview with The Movie Times , Sheridan said: “My goal is always to make the audience question who they should be rooting for. Who is the protagonist? There are very few purely evil or purely good people in my screenplays, because I’ve met very few purely evil or purely good people. It’s interesting to watch someone do something evil, become evil and question why that is, and watch someone who’s not very good, do something that’s really selfless.” By blurring the lines of morality, Sheridan succeeds where David Ayer’s Suicide Squad does not. These characters are complex, and refreshingly wrestle with these ethical decisions, whilst the former’s characters proceed to fight and never question these potentially fascinating dilemmas.
It may be set within the present day, yet Hell or High Water most certainly lives and breathes similarly to a Western, partially by virtue of the film’s setting, but also in decision of casting such actors as Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Both leads present an appreciated, rugged quality which translates well to this narrative, and in turn seem most qualified to star within a gritty Western in the future. Chris Pine literally ditches the ‘pretty boy’ routine once more in search of something far deeper, as the film finds Pine’s character grimy and dishevelled – a far cry from the respectable James T. Kirk. His rendition of a divorcee driven to distraction is one which comfortably balances humour and deep sorrow, often within the same period of screen time. It is a transformative role in regards to its physicality, but it also establishes a case for Hollywood to relinquish their grasp upon Pine and allow the indie scene to benefit from his newfound gifts for at least a little while.
Ben Foster similarly exceeds expectation, following his depressive and frankly troubling performance within the critically-mauled Warcraft. Here, he imparts yet another predictably manic and unhinged presence upon the film, appearing as a character who possesses distinctive mental health issues. For the most part, it is effectively unsettling and perhaps that approach was calculated. Yet, Foster himself is seemingly content with continuing this concatenation of bizarre performances. Fatigue however, appears to be setting in. In regards to Bridges, his performance is most certainly convincing, but it appears to channel the work of Tommy Lee Jones from within No Country For Old Men, merged with his character Rooster Cogburn of True Grit fame. The similarities are off-putting, yet Bridges ultimately loses himself within the role and expertly handles conversations of an existential nature – as does the severely underrated Birmingham.
Rififi. Heat. The Town. It is undeniable, filmmakers have been infatuated by the head-to-head conflict of police and thieves since the early days of cinema. Refusing to evanesce, the beloved sub-genre endures as a result of Taylor Sheridan’s unpredictably soulful and deeply human screenplay, which (for the most part) repudiates Hollywood cliché, in favour of a Neo-Western comprised of impressively understated performances and a suitably haunting score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
HELL OR HIGH WATER IS OUT 9th SEPTEMBER