No movie exists within a vacuum, and even the most outlandish-looking genre film still carries a distorted reflection of the here-and-now. Captain America: Civil War and Batman V Superman may be fantastical superhero movies, but they also feel right for a year where political and ideological division is, seemingly, everywhere.
Hell Or High Water, directed by Starred Up and Young Adam’s David Mackenzie, is a dusty Texan thriller charged with modern relevance. Playing on the images and trappings of western, road trip and heist genres, it’s another movie – alongside The Place Beyond The Pines and Out Of The Furnace – set against the backdrop of an America riven by the last decade’s financial crisis. Entire towns seem to stand empty. The nodding donkeys, once the sign of a healthy oil industry, no longer nod. Ranchers coral their skinny cattle and complain that their kids don’t have any intention of following in their parents’ footsteps.
As in Fede Alvarez’s recent home invasion horror Don’t Breathe, the 21st century depression provides an evocative backdrop for its protagonists’ crimes. Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), hoping to raise the money they need to prevent the bank from foreclosing on their late mother’s farmland, pull off a series of increasingly ill-advised robberies – brilliantly, from the very banks to whom they’re indebted. As the dodgy accountant who helps the siblings remarks, “If that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.”
Since Toby and Tanner rely more on luck and determination than strategic genius, it isn’t long before the law starts to circle. In typical thriller style, Jeff Bridges plays a Texas ranger, Marcus, who’s only a few days away from retirement. Less than enthused at the thought of seeing out his wilderness years on a porch sipping beer, he ropes in his longsuffering partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and resolves to spend as long as it takes to track the robbers down.
So begins a riveting drama-thriller which feels like both a throwback to classic dramas of the 1970s and also perfectly modern – a film with the rugged poetry of Cormac McCarthy and the intensity of Michael Mann’s Heat. Chris Pine looks haggard and scruffy as the younger, more conflicted of the brothers – the irony being that he’s far more of a star here than he is in the numerous films where he’s played a clean-cut Hollywood lead. His body language and thousand yard stare suggest a man weighed down by a lifetime of regret; that he robs banks might suggest greed or foolishness, but all he really wants is to give his estranged sons the financial security – and dignity – that has eluded his family for generations. Ben Foster’s similarly impressive as the red-eyed, wild-card brother, whose violent tendencies go hand in hand with his charm and charisma.
Then again, Hell Or High Water is if anything a four-hander, with MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) giving the two outlaws and the lawmen on their tail equal time in the spotlight; Bridges is as wonderful as you’d expect as the dignified, wryly funny ranger, but Gil Birmingham is his equal as Marcus’s partner. There’s an easy chemistry between the pair, and together, they give Sheridan’s keenly-observed dialogue a sense of mumbled, earthy reality.
Bridges and Birmingham’s laid-back performances are such that it’s entertaining enough to simply watch them driving around, quietly nudging each other with playful insults. There’s a moment in a diner that is as perfectly staged and outright hilarious. These scenes are a testament to just how a much a movie can shift in tone and pace if the filmmakers have the skill to create characters we can truly care about.
One scene in particular highlights the film’s freewheeling brilliance; the two old lawmen simply sit as the sun sets on a lonely town, reflecting on how financial collapse has devastated this half-forgotten part of America. It’s a sequence that gets to the bitter, laugh-out-loud humour and also the melancholy in MacKenzie’s film; it feels like a meditation on a closing chapter in American history, as the industries and customs which once gave stability to a whole generations of shop proprietors, oil drillers and ranchers has finally given way to the growing sway of corporations and banks.
In a year where “Make America great again” has become the rallying cry in an increasingly bizarre presidential campaign, Mackenzie’s intense, thoughtful and deliciously mordant movie feels perfectly keyed into its time.
Hell And High Water is out in UK cinemas on the 9th September. We’d urge you to see it if you can.