Hell or High Water (2016)
Dir: David Mackenzie
Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay was featured on the ‘blacklist’ of the best unproduced films floating around Hollywood, it’s clear to see why this deserved to get made, managing to perfectly balance the two sides of the law against each other throughout in a way that leaves us firmly in the middle.
Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) turn to bank robbery to cover impending bills, pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) every step of the way.
Texas is an interesting setting for this kind of story, as depicted here it’s inhabited by very proud gun owners, modern-day cowboys and have-a-go heroes, all complete with the guns and stetsons you would expect to see in a western. Therefore I would characterise the two pairs of the characters in this film as ‘the law’ and ‘the outlaws’, which the film is incredibly adept in balancing between, as they’re embroiled in a deeply personal modern tale with all the visual and story cues of westerns and heist movies.
Sheridan’s screenplay and Mackenzie’s direction paints a detailed picture of these characters and their circumstances, taking the typical genre features such as desperate robbers with a need for cash, pitted against a hardened law-man about to retire, yet going deeper with these characteristics to give us completely believable characters and a relatable story that’s condensed to just a few days to heighten the tension. Both sides are shown as flawed but with principles and reasons, one motivated by family, the other by the law and justice. This puts us as an audience in the interesting position of wanting both sides to succeed despite the way that the crimes being committed would usually polarise.
Instead of introducing us to characters and developing empathy for them before they embark on crimes, the film goes straight in to the first robbery within the first minute. Other robberies follow quickly and they go surprisingly smoothly and seem relatively easy, though things do get harder and no two are the same as the bank robbers face different difficulties with each.
The location of this spate of heists is vividly shown, with a mix of interior and exterior scenes that make economic hardship clear, stated as a motivation for the characters and shown to be an issue in the area. The region looks dated, stuck in time. Billboards about debt, shops closing and dilapidated buildings are a constant reminder of circumstances the characters discuss. The cinematography is wonderful and there’s some excellent camerawork, especially some of the shots that follow characters driving that capture both the dynamics in the vehicles as well as the striking landscapes and all those important details as they drive by. This is a setting and look that seems stuck in time. Though there are modern cars, technology, even guns, it all still feels like a western crossed with a 70’s crime thriller. Working along with the cinematography is the music, featuring a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that makes use of a lot of forlorn sounding strings and country music that fits perfectly within this setting.
The film contrasts the robbers and rangers throughout, edited to take us between the two so that there’s tension with both the crime spree and the pursuit. We spend enough time with the main characters to understand them well, clearly they have met their match in each other and so we’re uncertain how things will resolve. One point of the film I think the sympathies of many will shift, as the situation rapidly and dramatically changes and the balance starts to fall apart.
The brothers are very different to each other, as many siblings are, though with Pine and Foster’s excellent performances their chemistry works well. It shows an affectionate but strained relationship through bickering and arguments that touch on difficult history and important issues in their lives. One’s an ex-con with no other ties but his brother, the other a divorced dad who has been the dutiful son but is struggling to provide for his own despite skills and willingness to work. Motivations differ too, as one has taken this path as a last resort, a means to an ends, the other doesn’t stay far from his criminal ways and enjoys the lifestyle. There are family themes developed not just with the two of them but further into relationships with the ex-wife and sons, with one father/son moment that slows the film right down and clarifies the personal motivation exactly.
Their nemeses, the Texas rangers played by Bridges and Birmingham have a working partnership full of teasing each other playfully about race and age, with nuggets of harder truths in there, yet they’re never dumbed down, they are experienced and smart. The cliché of one being right on the verge of retirement is used to brilliant effect, setting up what we expect might happen if what weve seen many times before to be believed, yet the film doesn’t just drop that detail in for fun, it uses it to delve a little into why facing retirement is such a big change for the character and as a way to understand a lot more about him and the way he’s thinking. Jeff Bridges does mumble his way through many of the lines but his whole performance is one of his best and it’s clear why he’s getting nominations for best supporting actor, he’s fantastic to watch in every scene he’s in, not a bit of it is wasted.
All the performances in the film are very strong. Even the small roles stand out as very good, especially a couple of memorable waitresses, and some have-a-go heroes whose Texan roots mean they have their guns and are not afraid to use them. Populating the film with so many detailed characters makes it flow very well, keeping things engrossing. This meant that I found the turning point in the film in the last half hour very intense, as everything comes to a crescendo. We’re invested in all these characters and oddly want justice for both sides while it seems almost impossible as they should be mutually exclusive and seemingly inevitable that can’t happen, yet the film has kept things so even-handed throughout, so it’s all the more shocking when events may cause the audience to lose much of the goodwill towards certain characters.
Final scenes clarify the economic themes, that the bank has been the enemy all along, one that minor characters have alluded to many times, not the family man turned bank robber, and certainly not law enforcement. The final scene stands out, and will be one of those that makes it on to ”Top 10′ lists, returning to the precarious balance between the two sides with a wonderful confrontation that leaves the film on an interesting note. From the smaller details such as similar outfits, to the brilliant dialogue, it sets up this balletic conversation that brings everything together while not pandering to the notion of needing to tie it all up or finally take sides. It’s clear both have fought hard for what they believed they had to do, there’s more that could be said between them yet they say enough to give a sense of finality to the film even if the story isn’t over. It’s a masterclass in writing and acting, personally after all that we’ve seen, I think it would be near-impossible to end the film in a better way than it does.
After getting 3 Golden Globe Nominations though losing them all, ‘Hell or High Water’ was nominated for 3 BAFTAs (none of which it won) and is currently up for 4 Academy Awards including ‘Best Picture’. I think it faces tough competition, though my guess would be the best chance of winning will be Jeff Bridges for supporting actor, though the original screenplay deserves more credit as it’s so nicely handled.