The West dusts off its wild side to give us one of the films of the year.
These days, the best cinematic experiences are those that occur with as little forethought as possible. Whereas my teenage self couldn’t get enough of promotional trailers, articles and interviews, these days my going in blind is far more common. And rewarding; especially when the added bonus of knowing next to nothing about the film in question is factored into the equation. My latest taste of this glorious experience came last week, when I ventured to see David McKenzie’s Neo-Western heist flick, Hell or High Water – starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges – a film that had flown under my radar until a few weeks prior, when word of mouth began to suggest fairly frequently that it was pretty damn good.
Beginning with a basic premise – two cowboy brothers conduct a series of quick-fire, small time bank robberies in order to save their family farm – Hell or High Water develops into a rich tapestry, punctuated by subtle performances, crackling dialogue and striking imagery. Scottish director McKenzie weaves an emotional journey out of a matter-of-fact mission as he brings Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan’s cynical, 2012 Black List-winning script to life with understated, thought-provoking detail. Our boys are not merely part of a down-on-their-luck family seeking justice (a main theme that, for the most part, comes full circle) against the hick Texan bank that’s done its best to fuck over their mother. Instead, they’re a specific part of the picture’s commentary regarding the wider socio-economic downtown of small town America, particularly areas encompassing the historical Old West. Debt is rife, homes have little value, and the art of ranching is on its knees. The only hope is to luck out and strike oil, but, even then, the bank stands in your way.
This sort of bleak outlook is ideal foil for an audience looking for reasons to back the anti-hero(es), particularly in a Western-themed production, where the odds of a main character being a scumbag of some kind are usually on the short side. A sympathetic connection is aided by the performances of Pine and Foster. The latter breathes new life into the clichéd crazy criminal brother character with an honest, toned down approach to having nothing to lose that limits the wild-eyed explosiveness – barring the odd rogue moment – to circumstances in which it is necessary for his brother to succeed. He’s fucking funny too, adding an extra layer to Sheridan’s witty lines with a weary, but switched on demeanour of a highly self-aware criminal who’s accepted his fate. Complimenting Pine and Foster, despite minimal interaction, is Bridges’ cynical, “three days ‘til retirement”-type Texas Ranger (who goes a long way toward stealing the show) and his Comanche-Mexican partner, played with wonderfully dry tolerance by Gil Birmingham. Like the brothers they’re attempting to apprehend, they enjoy a deeply mismatched, but fiercely loyal relationship – only with a tad more racist banter.
As with most Westerns, the vast, rural backdrops more than play a part in enhancing proceedings. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ peaceful shots bring a beautifully desolate, dry-as-a-bone country flavour to McKenzie’s moody, ranging direction; taking in and showing off the vast Eastern New Mexico landscape, from sweeping plain to dusty mountain top. Nick Cave and long-time collaborator Warren Ellis – who know a thing or two about how a Western’s themes should sound – add their low-key touch with a gently haunting score that twists in the wind alongside the mindset and fortunes of our characters, as they pursue what they each perceive to be justice.
Backed by little marketing and likely nearing the end of its run in most regions, Hell or High Water is an impactful triumph of modern cinema that I recommend everyone try and see on the big screen. Just remember to order the T-bone while you’re at it.