Review: Hell or High Water – A world-weary Western for the modern era

The latest offering from British Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) sees him team up with writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), to deliver a slow-burning Western for the modern era, Hell or High Water. The film revolves around two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) as they attempt to rob enough banks to prevent foreclosure on their late mother’s ranch in West Texas. This of course results in two detectives being assigned the case, and chasing the brothers down – the partnership of soon to be retired Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offering an interesting parallel to Pine and Foster’s brothers.

In its brief summary, the plot of Hell or High Water sounds downright formulaic, cliché even. However, what truly sets this film apart from any other ‘cops and robbers’ flick is its often masterful execution. This is a film that saturates itself in failure. The opening ‘heist’ scene is littered with awkward stumbles and miscommunication between the robbers and the unfortunate bank-clerk that foreground the mini-failures of everyday life. It soon becomes clear that this film will not adhere to cliché, but instead dance around it, with a deep sense of world-weary cynicism. Bridge’s Marcus for example, constantly quips about his partner’s Native American heritage, but the typical buddy-cop trope of a partnership somehow based on begrudging respect and ‘light-hearted’ racism, is undercut by a sense of genuine sorrow on Alberto’s side. Birmingham’s performance is of a man in mourning for his lost-land, and it creates a fascinating relationship between him and Bridges.

What is equally fascinating is the relationship between Tanner and Toby. Foster plays the older brother as a reckless, untamed career criminal, in a performance that shows just enough vulnerability beneath the achingly macho exterior to remain interesting. It’s a performance which allows for great tension between the two, and also lets Pine truly flourish as the (somewhat) straight man, with Toby providing a suitably conflicted moral compass for the audience to cling on to.

Ultimately, this is a film that manages to enliven the tired tropes of western and heist movies, by crashing them into the problems of the modern world. It is a movie as thought-provoking as it is adrenaline-fueled, and were it not for a severe lack of three-dimensional female characters, one could easily call it the strongest Western of the past decade.

James Candler

Image courtesy of CBS films

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