Director: David Mackenzie Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham Running Time: 102 minutes
“I’ve never met nobody that got away with anything, ever”. So says Tanner Howard, one half of the pair of bank-robbing brothers in Hell or High Water. It’s an understandable world-view coming from a low-level criminal, a man recently released from prison to a slowly dying part of Texas, where nobody seems to have two dollars to rub together besides the banks and the oil wells. He’s determined to help tip the scales in favour of his brother Toby and Toby’s estranged family, but while the film follows the brothers sticking it to the banks and a pair of aging Texas Rangers pursuing them, Tanner’s words are a pretty clear statement of where things are going. Following on from last year’s Sicario, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has put together a world that’s morally grey, but not totally bleak. The kind of world where nobody gets away with anything, ever. Or almost nobody.
Though Hell or High Water is well directed by Scottish director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), who mixes mournful shots of two-horse towns and dusty signs advertising loans with high pressure robberies, it’s Sheridan’s script that stands out the most from the people working behind the camera. While Sicario could be criticised for being overly nihilistic, the script here balances the violence and glum speeches with levity and decency, whether it comes from its two pair of leads or the numerous memorable side characters. There’s constant tension between the Howard brothers (Ben Foster plays Tanner, Chris Pine is Toby) since Tanner’s wild card tendencies threaten Toby’s careful planning, but genuine affection shines through between them, aided by the chemistry between the leads. On the Texas Rangers side, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, warm, wise and both acting superbly, take the investigation at a slow pace, essentially treating it as one last road trip before Bridges’ retirement. Age up the Hank/Gomie relationship from Breaking Bad for an idea of their dynamic, casual racism and all. The dialogue between the characters isn’t showy attempts at being quotable, but it feels real and charming, the kind of salt of the earth style writing that many try and fail to emulate from the Coen brothers.
Sheridan wisely keeps the action loaded right at the very front and very end of the film and keeps the lead pairs almost entirely separate. The audience’s attention is captured right away with most of the bank robbing coming at the very beginning and while they’re kept waiting for more, Hell or High Water puts its feet up and relaxes while the viewers get to know its characters. Character relationships and motivations are slowly shaded in, patiently creating reasons to be invested when the bank robbing comes back in the end and everything goes to hell. It’s the rare film that really earns its ending, which is spectacularly tense, the kind of ending that prompts sharp intakes of breath from the audience from something as simple as a car failing to start right away. Having such an engaging climax does lead to some ending fatigue as things wrap up, but there are worse problems for a film to have than a climax that’s too good.
Hell or High Water isn’t a flashy film, it’s not a big blockbuster and is unlikely to be a major contender during awards season. Yet the confidence with which it succeeds in everything it’s trying to do with confident pacing, well matched actors and clear and intelligent direction makes it one of the best films of the year. It addresses systematic poverty and the banks’ culpability in it with a more subtle hand than most films that have tackled those subjects in the last few years. Squeezed in between a loud and stupid summer and the self serious prestige films to come, this is a smart, easily watchable film that deserves the recognition that might elude it.