It has been argued that all Westerns share a single, underlying topic: the impending loss of the West. A cowboy riding the prairie alone or struggling to protect his secluded ranch may seem threatened by bandits or vengeful natives. But all he really has to fear is the looming disappearance of the open frontier and the mythic dreams of personal freedom it long inspired. That’s why most Westerns feel like elegies even when the good guys come out on top.
Scottish director David Mackenzie’s brilliant Hell or High Water is far from a traditional Western — it deftly blends that genre with elements of crime thrillers, buddy pictures and road movies — but you wouldn’t know it from its aching, all-too-familiar sense of loss. Set in the post-financial-crisis West Texas of the present day, Mackenzie’s film portrays a ragged, economically depressed small-town America no longer hungering for prosperity but for mere survival. All social contracts have been broken, and the American Dream is nowhere in sight. Though it involves a series of bank robberies, the story’s only real villains are the loan officers sitting comfortably in banks’ executive suites.
The first thing viewers see in Hell or High Water is graffiti on the back wall of a small-town bank that reads, “Three tours in Iraq but no bailouts for people like us.” Local businesses display signs reading “Closing Down” and “Debt Relief.” Two very different brothers, Toby (Chris Pine, Capt. James T. Kirk in the last two Star Trek movies) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma), arrive too early at the bank to commit a robbery in the style they imagined. Their lack of professionalism betrays their status as thieves of circumstance. That same bank loaned their recently deceased mother “just enough money to keep her poor” and put itself in position to seize the family ranch upon her death.
The bank has branches scattered across West Texas, a fact that eludes neither the bank-robbing brothers nor haggard Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham, Netflix’s House of Cards). The result is a game of cat and mouse and an inevitable confrontation, even as we root for all four characters somehow to prevail. Pine and Foster share a chemistry not often enjoyed by on-screen brothers, and Bridges hits all the right notes as a world-weary lawman not looking forward to his upcoming retirement. Both sets of partners communicate the moral complexities of their shared predicament without benefit of much explicit dialogue along those lines.
Mackenzie (Starred Up) brings an outsider’s sharp eye to a world still running on the fumes of its own mythology and receives valuable help from screenwriter and native Texan Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). It’s a minimalist film with spare dialogue and sudden bursts of humor. The desolate beauty of its setting generates a special vibe completed by Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ typically haunting score. But the soundtrack runs on an abundance of Texas-made and -inspired songs, beginning with Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard before leaping forward in time to Scott H. Biram and honorary Texans Colter Wall and Gillian Welch.
A strong sense of time and place is key to any good genre movie, and Hell or High Water is no exception. But this particular time and place seems to belong to all of us. It may be the first time we’ve seen the unique strains and pressures of today’s world fully depicted on screen, and that alone feels like some kind of progress.
Hell or High Water opens today, Friday, August 19, at the Canal Place and Elmwood Palace theaters.