Like Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is an elegiac, meloancholic modern-day western in which the strongest element is the milieu. In this case, that is contemporary small-town West Texas, which seems as exotic and lonely to this Sydney-and-Los Angeles based critic as the red desert of Sen’s films.
This is not just a bank robbery movie but one of the subset of bank robbery movies where the robbers really hate the banks. The twist here is that everyone else does too, in a way that couldn’t be more 2016. It’s not that the leather-faced, unironically cowboy-hat wearing, armed-to-a-man denizens of this world are on the robbers’ side; they just hate the banks more.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the robbers with an axe to grind; they’re brothers, and one is calm and thoughtful, the other wild and dangerous (guess which is which and you’ll be right; these two have not been cast against type). Jeff Bridges, in a role I suspect will garner him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, plays the Ranger pursuing them alongside his deputy, played by the always entertaining Gil Birmingham, who has the dryest delivery in movies.
The sad, dusty towns against which this classically-oriented story play out are breathtakingly evocative, as are the bodies and faces of all the Texans we meet along the way. It’s its own universe. Details are tremendously revealed through an almost perfect union of character and dialogue: when questioned by Bridges, one old timer says that the brothers were “lean, like cowboys.” That’s enough of a concept for a movie of its own.
Mackenzie, working from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who also plays a lean cowboy), parses out the main characters on a fascinating slow-drip feed, keeping us in a perpetual state of languid suspense. The story is evocative of classic westerns but offers surprising twists and turns, all built on careful construction of character. There’s a spare but extremely apt original score by – yes! – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who are drawn to dust, obviously.
This is a political film shot through with a quiet but deliberate anger. The banks in these old towns are brighter and cleaner than the wrecks surrounding them: after all, they’ve got all the people’s money. And guns – well, guns are everywhere. Every man in the film has one, mostly concealed. Dramatically, it ties the film to John Ford, John Wayne and the classic American West. Ideologically, it’s terrifying.
This is an excellent film and will probably feature in a few categories at the Oscars – besides Bridges for Supporting Actor, I’m thinking Screenplay and possibly Best Film. See it.