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Hell or High Water

August 12, 2016
Hell or High Water

Some scripts from the Black List, once their newfound fame leads them to production and release, make it apparent why they hadn’t been produced before. With Hell or High Water, I can see why producers might have been leery; who makes a contemporary western and doesn’t use it to deconstruct its own genre anymore? But it’s absolutely solid work on the part of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, outdoing Sicario, whose buzz almost certainly helped clinch the production last May.

Director David Mackenzie sets the film’s tone in graffiti on a wall as the sun rises over a sleepy West Texas town: “two tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us”. If it’s not the wall of the West Midlands Bank branch, it’s nearby. We see two men pull up and get out of a muscle car wearing ski masks as the branch’s first teller opens the door. It’s quickly apparent that these two don’t quite know what they’re doing, but they do it well enough to get away with a few thousand in loose cash from the drawers. Then they repeat the process at another branch a few towns over before they bury their car.

Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has more of a taste for the life of crime. Jumpy and excitable, he’s just a year out from his latest stint in jail. His brother Toby (Chris Pine) has barely a traffic summons on his record, but he thinks he can plan the perfect series of bank heists. Just don’t get too greedy; hit them early when nobody’s around; don’t take anything that might be a dye pack. You can launder the cash at a casino on a reservation up in Oklahoma.

It’s not a big mystery, but the script does take its time unspooling just why these brothers are hitting this particular chain of banks at this particular time. While we wait, it gives Pine a chance for some of his best character work ever, opposite western veteran Foster. Not a moment slips by that Mackenzie doesn’t put to good use in developing these two men, how they pull against each other, and yet are bound together.

Even if it’s not treated like a big mystery for the audience, it’s obviously a mystery for the Texas Rangers. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) grabs the case as one last gasp of relevance, two weeks before his mandatory retirement, backed up by Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Bridges plays Marcus weathered and craggy, recalling Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men. He manages to pull off a certain laconic charm, even while cycling through hoary stereotypes about Alberto’s native ancestry on his way to separate litany about his Mexican ancestry. Marcus and Alberto mirror Tanner and Toby, giving another pair of men who chafe at each other’s differences even as they need each other.

This all plays out against the backdrop of the Llano Estacado’s plains, dry and tight, but not quite arid. The land is expansive, and Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens allows it to show clearly why the spirit of frontier individualism once flourished here. But as gorgeous and open as it appears — especially in the breathtaking shots of the escarpments at the edge of the mesa — we know that things are different than they were in the days of the classical western.

The land stretches out forever, but it’s been invisibly carved up by the interests of banks, ranches, and corporations exploiting natural resources from oil underground to the wind that passes unobstructed over the plains. In the classical western, frontier settlers would pit their mettle and ingenuity against a harsh landscape to carve out a place of their own. In Hell or High Water, the land has been replaced by corporate landowners, but the same struggle continues.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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