BLOOD ALWAYS FOLLOWS MONEY.
This film, surely one of the best to screen in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes festival, may take place in West Texas, but it wasn’t shot there. The filmmakers opted for Eastern New Mexico instead, a region that is sometimes called ”Little Texas”. As far as culture, demographics and the landscape goes, it looks a lot like West Texas. Maybe it was cheaper to shoot there, but in any case the place has the right feel for the movie – its flat terrain, hot sun and rural culture provides an effective backdrop to what we might call a neo-Western.
Early one morning, two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster), rob two branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. They plan to hit several more offices in small towns over several days, avoiding complications and also making sure to steal only small amounts, no $100 bills that could be loaded with dye packs. The brothers intend to use the money to avoid foreclosure on a ranch left behind after the death of their mother.
It’s a smart plan, even though Tanner is a hothead willing to take much greater risks. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) don’t yet know who they’re after, but soon figure out where the robbers might be headed…
Great understanding of westerns
An impressive effort from British director David Mackenzie who up until the premiere of Hell or High Water was probably best known for the Scotland-set drama Young Adam (2003). This is his second American film and it shows a great understanding of and interest in the classic hallmarks of the western genre. We have two young bucks robbing banks and two seasoned lawmen on their trail. We’re treated to sights of dusty, wide plains and small towns, shot in a traditional, iconic way – expect many gorgeous scenes where characters hang out on porches, pickup trucks and fences, surrounded by earthy vastness.
Obviously, there’s also an exciting showdown near the end, brutal and heartbreaking in nature. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script consistently comments on what life is like now for those who live in these places, connecting old-fashioned sensibilities with current events. The fictional Texas Midlands Bank is the true villain, unreasonable and money-grubbing, taking advantage of folks who are struggling to get by. A lot has also changed for Native Americans; Alberto Parker is Comanche, used to his partner’s constant ribbing, but also bitterly aware of the dignity and history of his tribe that once ruled the land where he’s now simply a ranger. The Howard brothers also launder the money they steal at an Oklahoma casino, which ties into the Native American theme. The intellectual value of this social critique is a bit muddled and on the thin side, but still relevant as examples of what happened to the Old West.
As a thriller, Mackenzie paces his movie very well, and the actors are magnificent. I’m happy to see Pine in a great movie, finally, and Foster is very entertaining as his loose cannon of a brother. Bridges (who’s starting to look more and more like Stan Lee in the film’s second half) is excellent as the aging but still brilliant ranger; Birmingham (who’s Comanche in real life as well) has the film’s most intriguing role as Bridges’s quiet, loyal partner.
Western mythology aside, the movie is also about relationships between men, brothers and friends. There isn’t much room for women as they embark on their quests. The landscape, economy and lifestyles of what used to be the Old West may change over the decades, but maybe some things remain the same.
Hell or High Water 2016-U.S. 102 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Sidney Kimmel, Julie Yorn. Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens. Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis. Cast: Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey.
Last word: “It is political. It’s kind of weird as an outsider, because I don’t think I have the right to be judgemental. And talking to Taylor about it, we didn’t want to be judgemental, but it is swimming in the waters of American politics, and it explores a lot of the fault lines that exist in modern America. You know, guns, race, banks, oil, land – those are the kinds of things that are really alive and causing deep rifts and anxieties within America.” (Mackenzie, Den of Geek)