“God I love West Texas.”
If I said to you that I’d just seen an awesome cowboy movie filled with bad guys you love, good guys you kind of hope aren’t successful in their pursuits, gunfights, bank robberies and beautiful scenic shots across the rolling hills of Texas, you’d think I was describing an old Eastwood or Wayne movie wouldn’t you?
But friends, I’m not. I’m talking about modern crime drama Hell or High Water, the latest film from Starred Up director David MacKenzie and Sicario (and large amount of Sons of Anarchy) writer Taylor Sheridan.
Not long after the death of their mother, broke divorcee Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) hatch a desperate plan to rob a string of banks to make enough money to save the ranch they are about to lose to said banks. Hoping to launder their proceeds through local casinos, pay off their debts and vanish off into the sunset, the brothers plan finds itself in serious danger of falling apart when Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) gets handed their case.
Desperate for some action before he retires, the grizzled Ranger and his partner Alberto Parker (native American-for-hire Gil Birmingham) trek across the state to chase the would-be cowboys. A cat-and-mouse chase ensues that will test the resolve of both the lawmen and the brothers.
No fannying about here today guys. No messing around with my words. Hell of High Water is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. I can honestly say I’ve not seen a crime drama as thoughtfully put together as this film since Michael Mann remade his own film into the epic Heat way back in 1995.
Now obviously that’s a big statement to make with no explanation, to compare this film to one of the most beloved crime dramas ever made, so allow me just a few lines won’t you? While it doesn’t have the star power – not quite – or the run time (clocking in at more than an hour less than the LA crime saga) Hell or High Water does have a pedigree behind the camera that could easily rival that of the 1995 thriller. Perfectly written and amazingly slow burning, this modern cowboy film balances itself brilliantly between time spent with our outlaw anti-heroes and our long-in-the-tooth cop. It implores the audience to ponder who we’d really like to see come out victorious come the credits, forcing us to truly wonder if there could ever be a winner here at all.
Continuing my comparison though, our leads bring career performances worthy of award recognition (OK, maybe not Oscars, although I’d love that. But maybe an MTV award or something). I don’t think I’ve ever praised a Chris Pine performance before, but here we get to see him do something completely different – and man is he great. His terrifically understated performance as the smarter of the brothers, trying to keep out of prison and rescue his family from a mountain of debt caused by the banks they are robbing, is mesmerising. More like this please, Mr Pine.
Similarly, Ben Foster’s ex-con is the brawn of the pair. The hot-headed bank robber keeps them on the edge of getting caught the entire time and while he thinks he’s doing the best for his brother, he just can’t see how dangerous his moves are. A brilliant performance from a man not entirely new to the Western genre. With the excellent Jeff Bridges wrapping up this trio of great performances, the Hollywood veteran brings a little bit of that lifelong experience to his role and gives a memorable performance as the old ranger, desperate for one last reason to unholster his pistol.
Which brings me to my final point really. Hell or High Water is a western, plain and simple. I know that the utterance of that word conjures up images of grizzled old men rustling cows, riding horses into town draped in long beaten up trench coats for a bit of a shoot out. But this film is proof, if you needed it, that the genre has evolved to something wholly modern. The times may have changed, but the story is without a doubt the same. Men struggling to make ends meet when their only viable skill isn’t in great demand anymore and turning to the outlaw life to keep food on the table. Lawmen chasing these men to hell and back to bring them to justice, hoping they see another day in this most dangerous of professions. All the tropes of the Western are here; and all brought up to date with modern ideologies.
The director makes no bones about sharing his thoughts on the state of the country. His issues with the dying industries of the Texas countryside or the second amendment are all out there and plain to see. But while his politics are brazen, it doesn’t detract from the film for one second.
Backing all this up with some splendid cinematography that captures the country and the mood perfectly, and a soundtrack that mixes a few old country songs with some dirty southern rock, this film really is the whole package.
Hell or High Water is, simply put, the purest Western movie I’ve seen in more than a decade and one of the best crime dramas I’ve seen in even longer. Tense, exhilarating and a real joy to watch; I fully expect this on a few top 10 lists at the end of the year.