Director: David Mackenzie (2016) BBFC cert: 15
With scorching violence, bone dry humour and a social conscience, this hard baked heist movie is an extraordinary ride into the dark heart of the new wild west.
Jeff Bridges is magnificently grizzled as Marcus, a cantankerous Texas Ranger leading his Native American partner in pursuit of a pair of likeable bank robbers.
This finely balanced construction contains a timelessness and an immediacy as mythic archetypes canter across the cruel climes of current economic conditions. The four lead characters suggest reincarnations of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued by The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And the film is frequently and intentionally entertaining as that sounds.
This acidic exploration of the American Dream touches upon the ownership of oil, land, money and its effects on life chances and family legacy. It reaches deep into the history of the nation to bring forward a lament for the state of the Union.
The of setting of Hell Or High Water is the macho world of dirt poor West Texas. An irony free world of cowboy hats, casinos and cattle drives, where every male of age carries a gun and drives a 4X4. Long shadows are cast by absent mothers and wives.
The action sequences are fast slaps to your face and the morally complex script bites with the venom of a rattlesnake. The melancholy tone is layered with lyricism via the earthy soundtrack provided by Aussie songsmiths Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The cinematography of Giles Nuttgens captures the rust and neglect of abandoned farm machinery, symbols of a poverty line existence.
Director David Mackenzie’s last offering was the vicious prison drama Starred Up (2014). Once again he demonstrates his keen ear for dialogue, sharp nose for a story and an astute eye for an image.
Mackenzie references the crime movies Touch Of Evil (1958) and Rififi (1955). He does it not to demonstrate his own knowledge, pad the film’s length or to distract the audience during a lull. There are no lulls in this film. The references are chosen for thematic sympathy and used sparingly and appropriately.
Bridges’ turn is also a modern day riff on Rooster Cogburn, the US Marshall from the remake of True Grit (2010) for which the actor was Oscar nominated. Plus the star’s presence recalls the actor’s early career where he sparred with in Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino’s crime road trip Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). That film was based on Captain Lightfoot (1955) which also concerned a pair of highwaymen brothers.
The tremendous script by Sicario (2015) scribe Taylor Sheridan so acutely observes human behaviour it could have been penned by the late great Elmore Leonard, the writer of novels from which sprung the films 3:10 To Yuma (1957 & 2007) Mr Majestyk (1974) and Out Of Sight (1998).
Marcus is partnered with Alberto, a native American officer played with a wearied reservation by Gil Birmingham. Knowing Marcus is days away from retirement, Alberto chooses to dismiss his casual racism as office banter.
Thieves Toby and Tanner are played by the film’s other excellent double act, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. They’re on a stealing spree from the very banks which are threatening to foreclose on their ranch. And they’ve only a couple of days to raise the cash. After every job they bury the getaway car, an exercise laden with grave portent.
Best known as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Pine’s leading man looks and easy on-screen charm often obscure his talent. He plays Toby, the younger, more bright and reflective of the siblings, an estranged father who owes months of child support.
Neither pair are abundantly blessed with great intelligence or skills and this ordinariness helps to incubate an empathy for all four protagonists.
Elegiac, bleak, funny and always accessible and commercial, come hell or high water, you have to see this movie.