Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hell or High Water - Dir. David Mackenzie

Tales of cops and robbers have rarely been far from our cinema screens and at first glance, there’s an inherently timeworn look to David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. It doesn’t take long however for this neo-western to reveal its cynical and unmistakeably contemporary spin on bank robbers and dusty Texan landscapes.

Having cared for his mother in her final weeks, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) sets into motion a plan to secure a future for his sons by robbing the same banks that are set to foreclose on his late mother’s mortgage. Helping him is his ex-con of a brother Tanner (Ben Foster), with Texas rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) on their tail.

The tone is set early on through a series of long takes that capture the opening robbery. As the rotating camera follows the bank’s teller (Dale Dickey) from her car to the front door, a piece of graffiti on the beige wall reads “3 Tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”; as the brothers make their escape, sale signs fill shop windows and giant billboards offer loans that sound too good to be true. None of it is particularly subtle but it is effective, swiftly establishing the struggles that these small towns and their folk are facing.

Last year, writer Taylor Sheridan brought his tale of drug enforcement agencies and the cartels on the US-Mexican border with Sicario. Whereas that film seemed more interested in delivering a message, rather than doing what was best for its characters, Sheridan’s script for Hell or High Water more successfully integrates the themes of debt and financial struggle being perpetrated by the banks with a set of fully rounded characters. This extends to all of the supporting players who come across as genuine human beings fighting day by day to keep afloat.

Toby and Tanner are two very different people but very obviously brothers. Tanner’s more reckless and brings his bank robbing expertise to help his smarter and more contemplative little brother. Tanner lost 10 years behind bars and Toby has separated from his wife (Marin Ireland) and kids; their lives have changed but whereas as Toby appears to have accepted his position in the world, Tanner is charging along to make up for lost time.

In one scene in a casino, Toby ends up talking a prostitute but as the conversation about their respective money problems continues, it becomes clearer that Toby is more pleased to just have someone to talk to than anything else. Upon his return from the poker table, Tanner brings an immediate end to the situation, suspecting that the prostitute may be more interested in the large stack of chips in front of his brother than his personal woes. Is he being cautious or overly judgemental? We never find out, but it’s another situation born of the money stricken times, where everyone needs more and there’s not enough to go around.

On the other side of the law, the two Texas rangers are also worrying about their future. Marcus’ retirement is fast approaching and he grows more scared by this prospect every day, whilst Alberto faces more years on the job but without his long serving partner. They share quasi-confrontational banter, which usually starts with Marcus mocking Alberto’s Comanche heritage, that is gradually revealed to come from a sense of genuine affection and comradeship. They share one particularly memorable conversation where Alberto feels less than inclined to share in Marcus’ eulogising for a decaying America, sternly pointing out that the same thing happened several hundred years ago when the white settlers seized control of the land from the indigenous populations.

Whilst a large proportion of the pleasure to be found in the film comes from the characters having quiet conversations about the world (particularly with the sprinkling of dry humour throughout), Hell or High Water delivers on its genre thrills as well. The action is perhaps less frequent than I had anticipated but this ensures that each gunshot is as integral to the film as the words spoken. There’s a tangible realism to the gunfights as well; the guns look and sound heavy, like the killing machines that they are. Small details such as the taping together of cartridges, to make it easier to reload a weapon, add to the palpable lo-fi qualities of the film.

The film presents its nominal good guys and bad guys, but the characters inhabit the grey area in between. Toby’s noble intentions make him easier to root for than your stereotypical cash grabbing bank robber whilst Marcus and Alberto’s blinkered procedural approach creates a sometimes tense divide between the locals who are just trying to get by. The familiar genre elements of Hell or High Water should ensure it finds an audience but it’s the subtle character work that will give the film its deserved longevity.

Hell or High Water was released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th September 2016.

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