Taylor Sheridan has been on a hot streak lately when it comes to his screenplays. The actor-turned-writer received rave reviews for his intense and thought-provoking Sicario, which premiered at Cannes last year, and now he brings us his follow-up in the form of Hell or High Water, a feisty neo-western which has all the ingredients of a typical cops-and-robbers flick but surprisingly, also boasts a hefty amount of substance.
Rising British director David Mackenzie brings the same gritty energy here that he did to his acclaimed prison-drama Starred Up and does an effective job of making an unsettlingly violent and intelligent Western that fires on all cylinders.
On the surface, the story is a simple one. A desperate single father of two named Toby (Chris Pine) convinces his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help him rob a string of banks in order to pay off the mortgage to their late mother’s house before they foreclose on it. Tanner doesn’t take much persuasion as evidenced by the first scene in which the boys rob an unsuspecting small-town bank. He gleefully seems along for the ride, but the tone is immediately established by a telling look in Toby’s eyes that heavily indicates that Tanner is a loose cannon waiting to prematurely ignite.
Toby takes on the role of the “brains” but also keeps his Rottweiler-brother from being let too far off the leash. It’s a comically dark but memorable opening scene because despite their no-casualties approach, the boys soon realize the branch manager isn’t available to open the safe. As the teller says, “all you’re guilty of right now is stupid.”
Ben Foster has always shown great ability in portraying damaged and vicious characters, and watching him in each bank is like watching a kid with ADHD at a playground – he jumps over everything and demands that all eyes be on him. But he’s more than just a short-tempered wildcard, as Foster gets several great moments to flesh out this psychopath.
A particularly powerful scene shows him butting heads in a casino with an Aborigine who tells him that “Comanche means enemy of everyone,” to which Tanner perfectly responds “then that makes me a Comanche.” He’s both detestable and somehow likeable, and it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Pine has also demonstrated a much greater range in his performances recently. He may have the chiseled looks of a charismatic action star but he cleverly dials it back here with a quiet but layered demeanor. Toby only gets more and more interesting to watch as the script expands on his character’s motivations. It turns out he’s the sole beneficiary of his mother’s will and will inherit all of her land, which is literally resting on top of a giant oil pocket. This financial security only enrichens his motivations, adding a clever American political contextualization to his reasoning for robbing the banks that crippled his dying mother. It’s a genius Robin Hood-esque idea which elevates Hell Or High Water from being just a typical shoot-em-up chase film.
From a certain vantage point you almost feel like the brothers are justified in their actions, but this wouldn’t be a Western without a Ranger who has something to say about it. Enter Jeff Bridges, who plays Marcus – the typical old-school copper on the cusp of retirement. It’s an understatement to say just how fitting Bridges is in this role. He comes equipped with the mandatory Stetson, Aviators and a chewed-up toothpick like he was plucked straight from a Cormac McCarthy novel. He’s surly, sardonic and even casually racist towards his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) – and Bridges steals every single scene he’s in.
It may look a like a formulaic partnership, but both Bridges and Birmingham nail the married-to-my-partner bickering so well that it becomes impossible not to like them. They also provide the much-needed moral contrast to the brothers, but even they don’t see things as simply black-and-white. In a scene where Marcus mocks Alberto for Americans stealing the land of Native Americans, he makes a candid observation about how the cycle has started over again with corporate banks coming into small towns and taking what doesn’t belong to them. He goes as far to acknowledge that “there’s good and bad on both sides.”
I mentioned before that Mackenzie brings a gritty energy to the film, and it’s something that’s very apparent in the action sequences. The panoramic camerawork during the car chases is frantically brisk and adds a surge of adrenaline to the scene. The final bank robbery is also a highlight, leading to a suspenseful showdown and a moment of pure badassery that perfectly illustrates just how insane Tanner actually is.
My only gripe with Hell Or High Water is that the ramifications of Tanner and Toby’s actions towards human life aren’t properly examined. Their fight is with the bankers yet there are numerous civilians that get caught in the crossfires. Sheridan’s script only glimpses on the shock for a fleeting moment and then it’s never addressed again. For a film that blurs the lines on morality, it feels a little under cooked to not see some guilt or remorse for those that didn’t deserve to pay the price.
That aside though, this is enough terrific effort from Sheridan and those looking for a gritty neo-Western with a trio of strong performances should be very pleased with what’s on offer here.
Hell Or High Water is a gripping and exceedingly entertaining neo-Western that delivers an ensemble of stellar performances (particularly Bridges), gritty action and dark humour.