Review: Brilliantly measured, 'Hell or High Water' is a neo-western with true grit

From the writer of 'Sicario', Chris Pine has never been better as a desperate bank robber in desolate Texas

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in 'Hell or High Water' [Element Pictures]

As a movie genre, the western has never shied away from the value of true grit. Courageous cowboys and fearless farmers expanding their way out west, winning by screwing over everyone along the way, it’s the kind of genre where characters find themselves bruised, battered, and beaten, left clinging to life by the side of a road, knowing the only way to save themselves is to get their own hands dirty and manifest some destiny. And that’s no guarantee of success. In the classic western, Native Americans, saloon owners, and foolhardy sorts seeking their slice of the American Dream usually fall foul of some foe. But in Hell or High Water, a neo-western set in contemporary Texas, everyone is struggling.

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, an actor whose freshman script for Sicario saw that that movie creep into the ‘Top 10’ list of many in 2015, Hell or High Water is a story about two groups of two men; on the lawless side, we have brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), working their way across the state, hitting up the branches of the same bank, taking only smaller bills and bigger risks each and every time. Their crimes pull the lawmen into the story, with two Texas Rangers in the shape of Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, whose pursuit gets stretched by the former’s desire to stave off his impending retirement by as long as possible – a chestnut so old by now that it goes to show just how good this film is that you’ll entirely ignore it.

As the plot develops, that’s about as much as we get. The brothers go from intimate heist to intimate heist, dealing with the reality of robbing banks in a state where the 2nd Amendment is sacrosanct – and conceal-and-carry is second nature. The two rangers spot clues and close in, with an impending sense that this just isn’t going to end up with all four riding off into the sunshine.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the lawmen on the tail of two bank robbers [Element Pictures]

It’s a credit to Sheridan’s script that Hell or High Water is a film about everything that goes unsaid. Hints and allusions are lurking everywhere, the landscape shots littered with billboards offering instant credit and ‘For Sale’ signs posted in front of many of the houses the brothers speed past. The two pairs’ interactions, often played out while driving from bank job to bank job, are loaded with throwaway lines that dole out a dolorous back story, the subtext loaded with fatalism.

In this Texas, businesses have closed their doors, economic downturn has crippled the state, the towns are empty, and the only hope for the next generation to break from the cycle appears to be the oil rigs dotted across the landscape. The slowness of these scenes pair perfectly with the frenetic robberies, which at first seem to be planned, but, when it’s revealed that time is not on the brothers’ side, become increasingly desperate and haphazard.

Chris Pine has never been better, bringing an earnest desperation in a quiet performance, breaking out from the glib and cocksure mould his previous work has displayed with varying results. As Tanner, Ben Foster is the livewire, having spent time in jail and far less patient than his brother – and managing to resurrect his reputation after the dire Warcraft. Together, the two actors convey a lifetime of brotherhood, troubled but loving when it needs to be. Bridges and Birmingham share scathing barbs, poking fun with blunt jokes about their past and future. Grumbling old-timers shuffling along are really nothing new on screen, but in Bridges’ capable hands this Texas Ranger drive to catch his prey takes on something almost quest like.

Everything is measured and revealed in exactly the right time, the film building to its third act finale and its aftermath in the kind of self-assured way that it’s hard to believe this is only Taylor’s second screenplay - an Oscar nomination would not be uncalled for. Beautifully soaking in the rich pallet of the Texan landscape, playing homage to the classics of the genre, and building to an irresistible finale, Hell or High Water is a class act in every way.

Hell or High Water, 15A, 102 minutes, Released: September 9th

Verdict: ★★★★★ Beautifully underplayed and perfectly balanced, this is a film in which every party involved brings everything to the table and an easy favourite for film of the year.

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