Hell or High Water

UK Release Date 9th September 2016
Director David Mackenzie
Starring Bridges, Pine, Foster, Birmingham
Runtime 112 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 12th September 2016

For reasons that escape me, I still haven’t managed to get to Starred Up. It was heavily feted at the LFF a couple of years ago and having witnessed David Mackenzie’s recent movie, I have to say I really need to get back to it. I’m sure I have seen Hallam Foe, though damned if I can remember it. Matters not, after this, Hollywood will keep calling and it’s the very least the man from Northumberland should expect.

Hell or High Water (easily one of the most appropriate titles for a movie I've seen recently) is as bare bones as they come. Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) are robbing banks. Small notes, no bundles, nobody gets hurt (in theory). Sherif Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on the trail. Hamilton has a theory that because of the careful nature of the crimes, the boys are after a specific amount for something. The something is gradually revealed to be enough money to pay off the mortgage on their recently deceased mother’s ranch. And that’s your lot really in terms of plot. Hamilton is heading for retirement, something that rarely augurs well in these kind of situations and one boy is fresh out of clink (Tanner), whilst the other is a pretty poor father desperate to provide a life for his kids that differs from his own experiences.

And so we’re thrown into the maelstrom of post-2008 crash West Texas, resplendent with gun toting cowboys and innumerable payday loan billboards. And faded glory loons large in Mackenzie’s patient, wonderfully paced movie. We’re barely introduced to the boys as they appear at a bank at opening time. The drawers are empty and the cashier opening up doesn’t have a key to the safe, putting them firmly on amateur footing. From here on, desperation is written large through the movie. Not just on the brothers’ faces as they attempt to stay one step ahead of the specific bank that loaned their mum just enough to keep her poor, but in the very landscape itself. 
Every part of the movie aches for vaguely remembered better days. Cars creak as they are discarded to bury evidence, a waitress (played by the ever wonderful Katy Mixon) desperately tries to cling to the huge tip left by a taciturn Toby, despite the fact that it’s very likely evidence for the boys’ one spontaneous robbery. All whilst Giles Nuttgens’ expansive camerawork kicks dust up into your face and the soundtrack (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) evokes a Southern world that may or may not exist anymore.

The players are on note too. Bridges’ lumpy muttering is perfect for the ageing, racist (in a good-natured way), persistent lawman. Birmingham shines as the long suffering butt of the racist jibes and between the two of them exists a wonderful chemistry clearly born out of many hours on the road together chasing down low-level ne’er-do-wells for too little pay and even less glory. 

The brothers are served well by a script (from Taylor Sheridan) that knows exactly when to put up and when to shut up. Neither are particularly verbose but both impress with the creeping desperation of their situation. Foster’s Tanner is the more obvious of the two, no good since a horrific childhood with an abusive father but finally trying to do something ‘right’ for his younger brother. Little is revealed about either and Pine’s cerebral Toby is particularly difficult to read. A drifter of sorts (at least employment-wise), never in trouble with the law but certainly not providing much for his young family. 

And Mackenzie, well, he’s certainly found his groove out here amongst the coyotes. Immaculately paced, this is a movie that is in no rush to reach its conclusion, though it finds one (of sorts at least) in a nicely timed hundred-odd minutes. The layers of decrepitude found in the West Texas landscape are laid out, along with the horrible moral ambiguity of the situation as things gradually get worse for most involved. It’s difficult not to sympathise with the brothers’ cause as the dereliction rolls before your eyes as the cars trundle between towns. But this isn’t a story with answers, only baleful reflection at where we find ourselves - faced with the good guys against the bad guys against the worse guys.

In Short:

Hell or High Water is a superbly melancholic, patient and gripping thriller. Mackenzie plays it slow and close to his chest and the result is a genuinely original take on well worn material. An ache for something lost courses through every frame of the movie, helped by a magnificent soundtrack. Shocking and thoughtful by turn with faultless performances throughout, another low-budget movie this summer picking up where the blockbusters have dropped the ball. Mackenzie has just stepping into the big leagues and he could not look more at home. 

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