sat 20/07/2024

Hell or High Water | reviews, news & interviews

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

How the West was lost

Outlaw state of mind: Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby Howard

Having recently seen Chris Pine reprising his role as the headstrong but heroic Captain James T Kirk in the latest Star Trek, it's a revelation to find him in this gritty tale of crime, punishment, righted wrongs and moral ambiguity. To his credit, he doesn't wilt in the glare of his co-stars Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster, both of whom are giving it both barrels here.

One way of looking at Hell or High Water is to consider it as a double buddy movie. It's the story of West Texas brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine and Foster), who rob a string of local banks in order to pay off a reverse mortage loan – an American version of equity release – owed on their recently deceased mother's farm. It's also the story of the pair of veteran Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Bridges and Gil Birmingham, pictured below), who are on the trail of the larcenous Howard boys.The plot functions with lean efficiency to drive the narrative towards a conclusion that you begin to sense approaching fairly early in the piece, but the real purpose of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who also scripted the drug cartel thriller Sicario) and director David Mackenzie is to evoke an American south-west that time forgot. It's a land of struggle and poverty seemingly existing on a different planet from the tech-billionaires of California or Washington's cosseted politicians, and Sheridan's script doesn't shrink from pinning the blame for gross social breakdown on the rapacious behaviour of the banks. This is also Second Amendment country, where citizens carry firearms and aren't shy about using them.

As the Howards tear down a succession of dusty highways towards some unreachable vanishing point, roadside signs flash past, advertising loans or announcing property repossessions, and there's graffiti saying "Four tours in Iraq – we don't get no debt relief". The chase leaves a trail of memorable images in its wake – a huge freight-train thundering along beside the road, a cluster of cowboys leading their straggling herd away from a raging wildfire like ghosts from the old Frontier, a lone rider hitching his horse at a roadside grocery store among the battered sedans and pickups in the parking lot. The comic scene where the Rangers are served by a hard-bitten old waitress in a local diner is virtually worth the price of admission on its own.

Amid the one-horse towns and the eerily poignant open spaces of West Texas (even if a lot of it was shot in neighbouring New Mexico), the cast find plenty of room to dig deep into their characters. Initially Pine's Toby Howard seems to be a diffident character operating in the shadow of his hard-bitten elder brother – Tanner, we learn, has a long history of violent crime and has just finished a lengthy jail term – but Toby's strategic thinking and steely determination gradually emerge. Foster, an actor you always feel is just one role away from superstardom, is brilliant as Tanner, camouflaging his fractured past behind a hard, abrasive exterior yet capable of sudden moments of intense emotion.

Over in the law enforcement camp, Jeff Bridges excels as the cantankerous old Hamilton, constantly taunting Parker, his fellow Ranger, about his indian and Mexican background to just short of the point of getting punched. Sticking out his lower jaw like a blunt instrument, he's quite remarkably dislikeable, but his saving grace is an almost telepathic gift for getting inside the mind of his law-breaking quarry. Parker, meanwhile, represents another strand of the narrative as an avatar for how the West was lost. Somehow his bitter soliloquy about how the white man ousted the indians, then everything got devoured by the banks, manages not to come over as a preachy set-piece.

This is a story in which redemption arrives hedged about with draconian penalty clauses, and the message that to do the right thing by your nearest and dearest you have to take the law into your own hands would never stand up in court. It sure feels good though, and a soundtrack featuring the likes of Gillian Welch, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Chris Stapleton powerfully amplifies the rich visual textures and emotional tones.

Foster, an actor you always feel is just one role away from superstardom, is brilliant as Tanner


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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