Review: Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
By Rhys Tarling
Taut and nuanced, Hell Or High Water is an excellent example of a modern Western heist drama that’s got a lot on its mind. Its subtext, the economic disintegration of America, is delicately woven into a far more intimate plot: two criminal brothers and the two cops assigned to go after them. We are not positioned to root for one side to triumph over the other. But that’s not to say Hell Or High Water is above moral condemnation. Consider that the opening shot tracks the two brothers mere moments before their bank heist, but first, the camera makes a point of capturing a bit of scrawled graffiti: “3 tours in Iraq. But no bailout for me.”
It’s the key to understanding the film. Cop or robber, everyone in Hell Or High Water is navigating in a system that has already abandoned them. Even the large, sweeping shots of the cops in pursuit of the criminals is suggestive of an almighty shrug at their cat and mouse game; whatever happens, the banks will get their money back and then some.
Toby (Chris Pine) is an absent father struggling to make a better life for his son. His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is a hot tempered, trigger-happy asshole. Together, they plan a series of heists. They’re successful for a time, but clever lawman Marcus (Jeff Bridges, magnetic and odd as ever) and his partner are hot on their trail. A violent confrontation seems inevitable.
Director David Mackenzie manages to find wonderfully observed moments of humanity and complexity in what could have easily been a disposable action crime film. Like the gentle ribbing between Marcus and his Native American/Mexican partner that’s always on the verge of becoming a little too cruel, or any scene between Pine’s Toby and Foster’s Tanner where, even if not much is said between them, a world of troubled history and brotherly love is apparent.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster are simply outstanding here, always giving textured and layered performances. Jeff Bridges’ Texan drawl occasionally threatens to become incomprehensible, but his weariness and laconic humour only highlight the deep sadness that informs the character: a sharp-minded elderly cop facing the everlasting boredom of retirement, of feeling useless. And, as if to underline the common thread of humanity, many of the scenes of the criminals and the lawmen visually parallel each other well.
An impeccably crafted thriller.