Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water opens with a scene of two masked men holding up a small bank. It’s the first of a string of hold-ups, all concerning small branches of The Texas Midlands bank. By stealing only small batches of money, the robbers hope to remain under the radar, but they attract the attention of two Texas Rangers, one of them a veteran close to retirement, who immediately senses that the robbers must have a very special reason for their actions …

We learn that the two men are brothers, Tobey and Tanner Howard. They grew up on a Texas ranch and want to save the family property from foreclosure. Tanner is the older of the two brothers, but he has spent almost half of his years behind bars and in many ways the introspective Tobey is ‘the older brother of his older brother’. I won’t give away too much of the rest of the plot. Figuring out what is going on – and why – is part of the fun here: Throughout the movie we get small doses of info that tell us more about the siblings, their social situation and their exact motivation; we learn why the impulsive Tanner ended up behind bars and why Tobey feels responsible for him, and we also learn how to the Midlands bank fits into it all …

Most critics have noticed similarities to No Country for Old Men, the movie adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name by the Coen Brothers. Hell or High Water is not an adaptation of one of McCarthy’s novels, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who also scripted the thriller Sicario) and Scottish director David Mackenzie (from the prison drama Starred Up) must be familiar with the author’s work. Dialogue lines are sparse and laconic, the words resonate in a metaphysical emptiness, a godforsaken world that leaves men on their own. Hell or High Water is a neo-western, but it’s not just an old school movie in a new jacket, it’s a movie that uses its geographic and historic context to say something about damaged men in a broken world.

Like the kind of robberies they perform, the two brothers seem to belong to a time that is long gone, and so are the two men chasing them, Texas Ranger Marcus and his assistant Alberto, a halfbreed Comanche. The rancher, the ranger, the warrior: they have all been pushed aside by the greed and coldness of the New West, a desolate landscape, blotched with billboards, pump jacks and seemingly abandoned restaurants that only serve T-bone steak. But note that the robberies are a sort of ‘border justice’, the Old West is still fighting back …

You might get the idea that the characters are stereotyped, and yes, we’ve met these types before, but within a meaningful context and played by a wonderful ensemble of actors, they become full-grown characters, men of flesh and blood. The movie works because the characters work: there’s a lot of chemistry between Chris Pine and Ben Foster – they really ‘act’ like brothers – and watching Jeff Bridges and Gill Birmingham you will get the impression that these men have been professional partners for decades. The script even allows some of the supporting actors to shine, notably Katy Mixon as a waitress who refuses to give up a tip (potential evidence according to Marcus) she received from one of the robberies and 88-year old Margaret Bowman as another waitress, one who gives orders instead of taking them.

It all seems to click, from the atmospheric, non-obtrusive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to Gill Nuttgens’ reserved cinematography of these desolate, half-dead towns in the middle of nowhere. Oddly enough the film that seems to breathe Texas from all its pores, was largely shot on various locations in New Mexico. Some have criticized the finale for being rather unlikely, and yes, it’s hard to imagine that a conversation like Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine have in the movie’s dying moments would take place in real life, but it’s a wonderfully constructed and acted scene, and hey, we’re in a theatre of dreams, were wishes come true. You’d wish film makers came up more often with these kind of movies.

Director: David Mackenzie – Cast: Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker), Marin Ireland (Debbie Howard), Katy Mixon (Jenny Ann), Margaret Bowman (Waitress) – Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan – Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

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Simon Gelten

One of the most active contributers and senior reviewers of the Spaghetti Western Database (SWDB), Simon saw all Leones and several of the Corbuccis in cinema, most of the time in Eindhoven, the city where he was born. Currently Simon is living in Turnhout, Belgium.

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