The western persists because it speaks to something fundamental in the American psyche; be it the proto heroics of John Ford and Howard Hawks, the revisionist irreverence of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, or the existential tone of modern purveyors like Andrew Domink and Kelly Reichardt, filmmakers keep returning to genre’s archetypes in the hope of elucidating something about the present. A mixture of reverence and dread permeates these various conceptions of ‘the west’; on this frontier can be found salutary, immutable truths about the ambiguities upon which the territory was settled. Of late, the western has increasingly become more a designation of mood, which fits the latest foray into genre from David Mackenzie – Starred Up (2013), Perfect Sense (2011) – to a tee.
Hell or High Water is a fascinating hybrid which resembles ’70s heist classics like The Getaway (1972), Charley Varrick (1973) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) as much as the neo-westerns of Monte Hellman and Arthur Penn. It tells the story of two brothers: Toby (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two struggling to makes his alimony payments; and Tanner (Ben Foster), who has recently been released from prison. To raise enough money to save the family’s ranch, the brothers rob a string of small-town banks and are trailed by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Through its somewhat simplistic premise, Hell or High Water manages to encompass grand themes, using genre tropes to examine the complexities of male relationships and tap into the prevailing rage at institutions – the real villain of the film is the banks, who are universally despised. The result is a Southern-fried variation on films like Killing Them Softly (2012) and Into the Furnace (2013) in which the classic outlaw has joined the ranks of the precariat, the privations of the old west replaced with the blight of foreclosure. There are echoes of The Last Picture Show (1971) in its depiction of small towns slowly crumbling under the weight of debt and decay, and Badlands (1973) in its poetic undertone – due in large part to the sparkling cinematography of long-time Mackenzie cohort Giles Nuttgens; and another sublime score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which has the same elegiac tone as their work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).
Mackenzie has proven himself to be a skilled genre filmmaker, and his unique working methods – he shoots quickly without monitors and edits on the fly – lends Hell or High Water a sense of urgency and energy that comes from creating an environment in which his cast can fully occupy their characters, creating what Mackenzie describes as ‘epic realism’. Mackenzie also has an eye for a good script, and the sophomore screenplay from actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan has the vivid sense of place and subtle social commentary that made his debut offering, Sicario (2015), one of last year’s best films. Here he throws some humour into the mix, without detracting from its dramatic impact. The film hinges on the two relationships at its core, and Sheridan successfully lends humanity to outlaw and pursuer.
Bridges channels Rooster Cogburn with a wonderfully gruff, grizzled turn that stays just the right side of caricature; riffing on the ‘cop approaching retirement’ trope with the same assurance as Robert Duvall in Falling Down (1993) and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men (2007). Bridges is ably assisted by Birmingham’s less showy but no less integral supporting performance as the butt of Hamilton’s relentless but affectionate mockery. At his best, Pine is a great laconic leading man in the Steve McQueen mould; he brings a shell-shocked quality to Toby, a man struggling to reconcile himself with the dark impulses he’d tried to tamp down; in which his rattlesnake of a brother luxuriates. It’s getting to the point where Foster’s consistent brilliance is beginning to be taken for granted, like Philip Seymour Hoffman before him, and one is left aghast at his complete absorption in a role.
With its ear for the earthy cadences of West Texas and touches of Southern Gothic disquiet, Hell or High Water occupies the same philosophical universe as Cormac McCarthy and the many pretenders to his barbaric crown. Hell or High Water is filled with big skies, forbidding vistas and rusting, sun bleached habitations which sing with a hostile beauty; peopled by men grappling with the brutality of a future in which they have no role. But for all its anger, there is also a tenderness, a romance which finds pathos in every story being told, lending genuine emotional heft to its dénouement. Mackenzie joins the lineage of filmmakers who have utilized the grammar of the western to articulate pressing social concerns. Hell or High Water stands alongside the best twenty-first-century explorations of the genre.
Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer.