There’s a moment late in the film when Jeff Bridges, playing a curmudgeonly Texas Ranger, sits down on a homestead porch to discuss the case he and his partner, a Comanche, had worked on. He crosses his legs, and places his hat on the toe of his boot. It’s an action only an actor comfortable with his skills could do, an experienced actor well involved in his characterisation. That simple gesture tells me it was improvised, it wasn’t in the script.
This is a fine movie. A very fine movie.
The dividends pile up. The script is full of nuance, layered with surprise dialogue, all of it authentic. There’s insight in abundance. It’s written by the same award winning author of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, who takes a cameo role. The acting is superb all-round, a constant delight, and what is more, a director with a company in Glasgow helms the entire enterprise, David Mackenzie.
The basic story hangs on two small-time ranching brothers, Toby and Tanner, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, pushed to bankruptcy, facing mortgage foreclosure, about to lose their small holding, who take revenge on the banks they blame for their downfall. We are in recession, still are, the story of our times.
Shooting up banks? Bring it on! We’re cheering already.
There’s plenty of bank robberies beautifully shot and executed to keep us happy, but the pace is held firmly on front porches and backyards, in gambling casinos, bars and diners. The pace allows room for apposite country and western songs to boost a mood, and twanging guitars to accelerate melancholy.
Mackenzie appears to let the actors work their way around a scene, like chewing tobacco, ruminating, then when they’ve sucked all the goodness out of the baccy, spit it out, bite off another piece, and start chewing again. The movie is all the better for it.
There are sequences that have you wondering when all the talk will end. When it does you realise you’ve learned something important about the characters, human ambition and redemption. The long takes fixed on long conversations are justified. The conceit yields poignant rewards.
Mackenzie and Sheridan, (the latter grew up in West Texas and has an ex–U.S. marshal for an uncle) are far more interested in exploring the men’s off–the–clock behaviour than throwing them at facile action sequences.
We get two pairs of tough, hard bitten, driven men, the bank robbers and the Texas Rangers hunting them down. Director and writer suffuse the plight of both pairs with a faded melancholy. You really do feel their pain.
Hell or High Water’s metronomic pacing has the languor of a nightmare chase in slow motion, an oppressive stillness in the day’s searing heat; a pair of tough bulls caught in quick sand struggling to free themselves.
The photography matches like with like. At sunset, Toby and Tanner share a beer, mock-wrestle, getting in one more moment of affection before a fateful day of robbery; outside a motel at dusk, the elder Hamilton hoping to trap the robbers, wonders aloud about what the retired life has in store for him. His hobby is teasing his Comanche partner with mock insults; it’s a Texan thing. But you know he holds him in high regard.
I’ve been to Texas, stayed there a whiles, as they say, stared out a few long horn cattle for something better to do. It’s an American state of infinite dust and sudden floods, hard extremes, extreme poverty with families living in shacks, tilling a half acre of arid soil for subsistence, visiting their local ‘greasy’, their friendly diner Saturday night, fifteen miles down the dirt track for a brace of beers.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, extreme wealth, where oil millionaires and their just as rich neo-con lawyers park their gleaming white V12 Ford, four door trucks by their favourite £100 bucks a bottle restaurant for a T-Bone steak.
There are universities, but mainly for teaching business strategy, the law, and football, Houston Dynamos, Laredo Heat, and San Antonio Scorpions, plus basketball teams called Houston Rockets, Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and Texas Longhorns Men’s Basketball.
You don’t see much art as we Europeans know it, not that you go looking for it, but when you stumble over something of real worth it turns out to be a chapel created to hold great colour studies of Mark Rothko. Somebody somewhere cares. There’s no art to be found in the scattered communities and barren locations of this story, not even folk art.
This is a film about flesh and blood individuals, and all four know they ain’t going places that are good to be in.
Mackenzie and Sheridan embellish the central quartet with highly engrossing characterizations of rural-Texas types; especially vivid two waitresses played by Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman, the former forlorn and sensing possible companionship in Toby, the latter a tough-talking server whose opening line to her customers is the confrontational “What don’t you want?” The screenplay is full of carefully observed speech patterns and one-liners that get a person through the day.
Hell or High Water takes pains to show how an amateurish bank theft might actually play out in a state where every Tom, Dick, and Maverick carries a concealed weapon legally. After Toby and Tanner grab a handful of dollars from a two-bit bank branch that turns out to be more crowded than they expected, their getaway drive is attacked by a volley of gunfire not from passing cops, but from civilians in plaid shirts and pickup trucks.
Later in the sequence, when Bridges’ Hamilton shows up on the scene and propositions a pedestrian for a ride to a good vantage point, the ragtag strangeness of the scenario harkens back to an earlier comment of Hamilton’s, growled after an exchange in a parking lot: “God, I love West Texas.”
Bridges in particular is having a lot of fun, dressed in tan shirts and red ties and delivering his lines as if his mouth is full of cotton balls. He’s a sheer delight to watch. He plays with us, delivering us a slow, very slow, and slower Texan drawl that appears to be grounding to a halt before he finishes a sentence. He creates a memorable character.
Pine, normally a clean shaven ‘pretty boy’ actor, more used to ambling across the flight deck of a Star Trek spacecraft, is here pressured to give a seriously deep performance, with Foster, an actor associated with the weird and the wacky, his perfect foil. Foster plays a guy he knows well from previous roles, the loner, the crazed ex-con. He’s the brother their mother rejected, and his whole life is a rebellion against hurt.
Pine has the edge in performance over Foster. He impresses with the silent, restrained introspection of a man who knows he’s doing wrong but has to do it to fulfil his sense of justice. He’s all regret, hunched shoulders, shuffling feet, and downward glances.
A little about David Mackenzie: Frequently introduced in interviews as ‘Scottish’ – there’s no mistaking that brogue – he was born in England, Corbridge, Northumberland, to be exact, and made his name making decidedly non-commercial art house moves, Young Adam, (2003) Asylum, (2005) Starred Up, (2013) and Hallam Foe, (2007). He got there after studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, now part of the University.
His choice of subject matter is eclectic, impossible to categorise, to be honest, but what he does have in abundance is the ability to direct actors to get the best from them, or at least, allow them to find their way into the role without direction imposed.
Mackenzie cites a trip he took to Alpine, Texas, many years ago as having “a formative experience” on him in making Hell Or High Water. When he was sent Sheridan’s script, “It was love at first sight. I love the way it moved, the sense of place and people and its connection to the great movies of the 1970s that I really loved. But also felt like it was snapshot of contemporary America with resonance of the past, a slightly poetic song to the change of the Old West.”
No director will say the screenplay the shot was crap, the fee attractive. But in this case Mackenzie hardly had to develop the script with Sheridan, it was and is perfect. He is admirably served in his quest to craft a good film by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. There’s an Academy Award nomination waiting for both, maybe Bridges too. My only criticism is the depiction of women as abandoned housewives, or overbearing.
Near the film’s end Pine says ruefully, “My parents were poor, their folks too, generation after generation; it’s a disease.”
Don’t we know it. Don’t we know it.
- Star rating: Five stars
- Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
- Director: David Mackenzie
- Writer: Taylor Sheridan
- Cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens
- Composer: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
- Rating: 12A
- Duration: 102 minutes.
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?