Hell or High Water, 2016.
Directed by David Mackenzie.
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey and Gil Birmingham.
A divorced dad and his ex-con brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.
The appeal of David Mackenzie’s sweltering Texan noir is understandable. Harnessed by a gaggle of flagship character actors, penned by the deft hand behind Denis Villeneuve’s thunderously visceral Sicario (2015), and packaged like a finite slice of 1970s Americana, there is little doubt that audiences wish to – and indeed will – see Hell or High Water. And so they should. Whilst unable to honestly earn the many plaudits smothering the promotional campaigns, this is still a handsomely crafted production which serves as a rugged and welcomed gear-change as we leave a summer of disappointments wallowing in the dirt.
Only screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s second offering, his prose here showcases both areas of finesse and fault. At the central heart of Mackenzie’s drama are brothers Tony and Tanner Howard; played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The duo are bank robbers who steal the petty cash from branch drawers as opposed to the bigger, traceable dollar bills. Hitting tills at the earliest points of the day and consistently switching up getaway vehicles, their criminality activity is disciplined and orderly. But it isn’t long before the law catches a potent whiff of their scent. County Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Indian-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) take the case and journey the many vacant highways of West Texas; with the former longing for a meaningful final encounter before a date with residential destiny arrives.
Sheridan’s strengths lie in his character work. Despite a largely singular, cliché base note – cops and robbers – he is still able to design rich anti-heroes with emotional validity, and complex authoritarians who thrive on the nature of such unlawful ills. Pine in particular is provided with a potent narrative arc which not only renders his humanity, but gives definition and purpose to his current position. Whilst Foster and Bridges bring the typical traits to typical roles, their performance prowess elevates such familiarity and enables these personas to feel unique in their own right.
Where he falls down – and what ultimately stops Hell or High Water from being the melodic yet menacing picture it so desperately longs to be – is tone. Seriously inconsistent tone. Marketed as a muscular crime drama and a brooding heist thriller, Mackenzie’s film fits more comfortably into the dramedy sub-genre. His screenplay is populated and often controlled by injections of humour taint any true sense of peril or tension. These regular gags, no matter how funny, pepper the film’s most intense sequences, damaging their validity.
Bitter shootouts and tormenting robberies come equipped with a “that’s what she said”; upsetting the balance and clouding the atmosphere. The interplay dialogue between the brothers in the quieter moments is rightfully amusing as it lends definition to their individual personalities, but it has no place in any central dramatic set piece. War Dogs tried it last month and failed, and this title follows suit. The film also brings very little originality to progressive storytelling, too. We have seen this narrative play out in a many-a-film, in many-a-location, and whilst this doesn’t stop Hell or High Water‘s tale from being entertaining, it does seize any real opportunity for being memorable.
Still, there is much here of quality; particularly aesthetically. Mackenzie’s camera paints a portrait of steamy absentia: hazy, sticky nothingness which is rural and unforgiving. Assisted by Giles Nuttgens’ ravishing cinematography and caressed by a lyrically dense score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the feature presents spectators with a palpable audio-visual identity. Aforementioned work from the cast – most notably Pine and the long-suffering Birmingham – is frequently impressive, and with a brisk run time of 102 minutes, things still push forwards in a measured and considered manner.
Despite failing to pack the supercharged ferocity of predecessor Starred Up (2013) or the thematic dexterity of Sicario, there is still plenty to admire in Mackzenie’s latest. Purposefully framed and impressively navigated, Hell or High Water echoes back to the spit-and-sawdust of yesteryear; even if there’s a frustrating tendency to lean on such support too often…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★