Moral and Mythic, 'Hell or High Water' Proves Westerns Are Still Alive and Kicking

This is one of the best crime movies in recent years, unfolding in a contemporary reality that seems disconnected from America, yet is of its essence.

"Hell or High Water"
Screengrab / CBS Films

Hell or High Water. Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Taylor Sheridan; with Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland

The western movie is alive in the landscape and the consciousness of “Hell or High Water,” a crime melodrama directed with flair, momentum and skill by the Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It could have been one more crime picture with a plot as stale as its characters, but is redeemed because Mackenzie and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan situate the story in a morally ambivalent milieu that is rife with mythic elements from America’s historical heritage. The plot unfolds in a contemporary reality that seems disconnected from America, yet is of its essence. Sheridan wrote the script for “Sicario,” a 2015 film by the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve that also drew its power from a similar atmosphere of moral ambivalence.

HELL OR HIGH WATER - Official Trailer

“Hell or High Water” is set in economically moribund West Texas. Two of the key figures, the brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), grew up in poverty on a farm whose debts are continually mounting and has little chance of survival. Tanner is an ex-con, while Toby is divorced and estranged from his two sons. Toby discovers oil on the land, a fact he conceals from the businessmen and bankers who want to foreclose on the family farm. The only way he can think of to obtain the money he needs to save the farm and ensure his sons’ future is to rob the banks themselves. Tanner agrees to the plan, but while Toby becomes a bank robber for coldly calculated practical reasons, his impulsive and more violent brother gets involved out of a sense of rambunctious tomfoolery, which poses a risk to both men in their criminal activity.

Wearing balaclavas, Toby and Tanner rob the banks early in the morning, in order to avoid hurting clients, and also take only money belonging directly to the banks rather than to depositors, most of whom are as deeply mired in economic woes as they are. But bank robbery is bank robbery, and it’s here that the third major character enters the plot: a veteran lawman named Marcus (Jeff Bridges), now close to retirement. Marcus is constantly razzing his deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), for being half-Mexican and half-American, but his taunting is more self-amusement than racism.

In fact, Native Americans constitute an element of the film’s social fabric. Toby and Tanner cross the state border into Oklahoma in order to launder the stolen money in casinos managed by Native Americans, and the film portrays the atrophied way of life of these indigenous inhabitants, who have been repeatedly exploited in the course of American history. Marcus, of course, is bound as a lawman to do his duty and apprehend the bank robbers, but much of the film’s ambivalence is generated by the fact that he is all too aware of the circumstances that drove the brothers into the world of crime.

"Hell or High Water" stars Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham
Screengrab / CBS Films

Mackenzie depicts brilliantly the natural landscapes and the hardscrabble small towns that form the background to the story, aided by the splendid cinematography of Giles Nuttgens. The picture is also enriched by the expressive faces of the local inhabitants, in some cases seen only fleetingly. The director’s sense of timing is unerring, as he cuts between quiet, intimate scenes and violent outbursts that sometimes catch the viewer by surprise and prove unsettling. Another theme is the iconography of the weapons that loom everywhere in the region portrayed in the film. The fact that this always volatile issue is playing a potent role in the U.S. presidential campaign lends the picture a measure of powerful relevance.

Bestriding these wastelands is a fine cast. Chris Pine, familiar mostly from action movies, primarily the “Star Trek” series in which he played Captain Kirk, shows for the first time that he is an actor of talent and not just a pretty face with blue eyes. Ben Foster has already proved himself in a host of films and does so again here. And opposing the two of them is Jeff Bridges, one of the finest screen actors since the beginning of the 1970s, who seems to be carved out of the landscape itself. He gives his character of the veteran officer of the law the precisely correct mix of irony and toughness. It’s the performance of an actor who has mastered the tools of his craft to perfection.

David Mackenzie’s work has been somewhat erratic, including some rather trivial films. But “Hell or High Water” is one of the best crime movies of recent years, thanks to its interplay between the traditional and the contemporary. It is stable, self-confident filmmaking. The result is cinema that bears an almost classic essence even as it plays against that classic element, which might prove confining.