Dust billows in waves in David Mackenzie’s newest scorcher Hell or High Water a film that manages to captivate the second the first frame pops into frame. Equal parts heist thriller and meditations on life and what it means to truly own anything, Mackenzie has yet again created something that it more than what the synopsis may suggest and that transcends convention.
Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who is trying to make ends meet in rural Texas and with the help of his older, convict brother Tanner (Ben Foster) the two begin to rob banks to help ensure the ownership of their mothers property. Hot on their tails is Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who, on the cusp of retirement, focuses in on the two brothers as his last task. Heavy on atmosphere the film doesn’t rely heavily on the plot, which is familiar but not tired, and much of the soul of the film is derivative of the hauntingly picturesque imagery and the key performances from the three leads as characters from different walks of life.
Theirs is a wasteland of a world, where everything has been dried up long before they hit their string of bad luck, to the point where anything from a shared beer, to a waitress who is genuine and flirtatious can feel like a reverie. Toby and Tanner may be criminals in the eyes of the law, but in the mind all they’re doing is what they must in order to survive.
Bridges plays the relaxed, grizzled old man in the relatable, humanistic way that only he can play so well while chameleon character actor Foster has a blast as the live wire, the unpredictable wild card to the brothers equation. Few films have allowed the performer to let loose like this and what’s phenomenal about the work he puts in is that where he could have been the one note comic relief, he instead layers in shades of envy for his brothers lifestyle, pain at his mothers passing and true, honest compassion for his brother. Pine meanwhile with his saucer sized blues has mainly been known for his leading man capabilities and while he’s up to task her, once again playing the straight man to other actors hi-jinks, he does so with an unseen before gravitas. There’s nuance in his work here as a tightly coiled man trying his best to keep himself together in order to protect everyone around. Compared to Bridges and Foster, his is a performance done mainly in what he doesn’t say and what his face conveys.
Beyond the performances is a litany of behind the scenes artistry. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have once again conducted a score that achingly brings out the wasteland mentality of the feature, low and somber, never quite relenting on it’s slow and sturdy pace. Director Mackenzie had a good team as well with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens who helps capture the isolation of the area. Scenes where the brothers stand at the edge of their property as the sun sets perfectly demonstrates the films ideology of being trapped where one grew up, both by expectations and ignorance and simply not knowing anything else. They are confined by the fences built up around their mothers home, stuck because Toby is dead set on never allowing his sons to feel as if they have nothing to come home to, or even to call a home. Theirs isn’t a happy life, but a dutiful one where they do what they must to survive and that’s it.
Taylor Sheridan’s script isn’t the showiest, especially when it has Bridges delivering lines with such capable ease, but with Hell or High Water and last years Sicario he has demonstrated immense promise in the past two years and understands how to write for ensemble pictures so that no one character comes off looking better than the other. Then, he goes ahead and writes quite possibly one of the best last scenes of the year so far where so much is left directly unsaid but so much is spoken in ciphers, implied in the corners of the words. The audience leaves the theater fulfilled but wondering about the lives of these characters past the running time.
Hell or High Water succeeds in spite of its genre holdings, stewing in the familiarity of the heist Western in order to really sell the languid atmosphere (be it one where just about everyone owns a gun) juxtaposed with the simmering beneath the surface personalities of our leads. Engaging from the first second onward, Mackenzie has created yet another stunner. Mixing both classical and modern elements into the storytelling, with ambiguity fraying the corners of the story, the film is quiet success and one that by year end time should remain too on the periphery of our minds.
Hell or High Water is out now.