As the culture divides on economic lines, it seems plausible a situation could arise like the one in 2016's Hell or High Water. It has two sides who seem equally justified however inescapable their conflict is, one side fighting against a legal system designed to break them, the other fighting to protect the lives of citizens. It fits perfectly the tone of a western, especially one of the best from the late 50s and 60s, where you find yourself liking both sides. Hell or High Water makes some choices in creating supporting characters I disliked but mainly it’s a good film about people trying to live in a slightly dreamlike version of Texas.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who are robbing branches of the Texas Midlands Bank—only the Texas Midlands Bank. It turns out they have good reason to want vengeance against this particular bank but even before this is revealed people instinctively sympathise with them, like a waitress who accepts a wad of bills as a tip from Pine’s character. When a ranger, played by Jeff Bridges, wants to take the money as evidence, she becomes immediately angry, explaining this money can help make sure there’s still a roof over her child’s head.
The interaction reflects an instinctive distrust between the working class and symbols of institutional authority despite the fact that Bridges of course seems pretty down to earth. In the hands of most other actors, his character would have been one of the weakest parts of the film.
Like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton is one of those old white men characters who casually says racist things all the time, in this case to his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and it’s supposed to be endearing and plausible. At least this time the target of his insults, Alberto, doesn’t seem to approve of them; still, for something that seems meant to be uncompromisingly realistic, it’s something I’ve never, ever seen in real life. And I’ve been to Texas and Tennessee. No matter how old a guy is, unless he has dementia, he reserves insults, racist or otherwise, for when he wants fight, not for a casual chat while on the job.
The film has the shadow of the Coen Brothers hanging over it with True Grit and No Country for Old Men apparently being influences and there’s an attempt to create colourful minor characters, something the Coens excel at. Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, though, don’t have the knack so we get things like an elderly waitress who goes on a rant to explain why she asks her customers what they don’t want. It’s like one of the episodes of Twin Peaks written and directed by people other then David Lynch—filled with conspicuous “look how odd” moments that thoroughly lack the authenticity of their inspiration.
But the film makes up for it by carefully building the relationship between Pine and Foster. The last act of the film is wonderful in its tension between two irreconcilable but sympathetic sides and the final dialogues of the film have the mythic quality of great westerns. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is also great. Somehow Nick Cave has become the go-to guy for scoring westerns.