Here’s the kind of film you could be forgiven for thinking the American cinema had all but forgotten about making: a slowburn thriller aimed primarily at mature audiences. Part of its appeal, certainly, is retro: in location, iconography and casting, Hell or High Water appears very much a Western. Yet it’s also clearly unfolding in the here-and-now, against a backdrop of post-crunch impoverishment – which speaks to the skill with which director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) take comfortingly familiar elements, toss in the odd curveball, and shuffle them until old becomes new again.
The catalysts here are Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), bankrobbing brothers engaged in a death-or-glory spree through West Texas in the immediate wake of their mother’s death. Motives beyond money-grabbing aren’t initially clear, but the pair have a manner and momentum that makes them fun to watch, and an unusual MO besides: they bury their getaway vehicles in the backyard of the Tanner family farm before laundering their loot through the region’s Native American casinos. They’re possibly just gamblers, and Mackenzie allows us to feel the thrill of beating the house every time.
They’re pursued, however, by one Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a dogged Texas Ranger so much of the old school that he fondly uses such terms as “half-breed” to describe his native sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham). That Marcus is days from retirement is but one of the comforting elements mentioned earlier; another would be Bridges himself. The minute the actor appears on screen, we know this investigation will take as long as it needs to – Alberto speculates Marcus is dragging matters out just to stay on the job a little longer – and sense it might be enjoyable to stick around and see how it all plays out.
Suffice to say, it is: the narrative is lived-in yet still lively, much like Ranger Hamilton himself, forever working some new angle to get closer to his quarry. For the longest while, Mackenzie seemed no more than an indie gadfly, scraping around for the funds that might sustain his next fizzling experiment. Yet he stepped up with 2013’s Starred Up, that gutsy prison drama that benefitted from the director’s growing feel for both a rundown place and the characters passing through it. (Former prison worker Jonathan Asser’s script unarguably guided his hand.)
He has a comparably sturdy building block here in Sheridan’s script, rich as it is in local colour and vernacular. “Were they black or white?” Marcus asks one witness. “Their skin or their souls?” comes the response. (“I gotta shit like an old goat”, declares Tanner at one point, somewhat less poetically.) Whichever side of the law his camera’s on, however, you can feel Mackenzie enjoying the company of these characters, and these actors.
This may qualify as the century’s lowest-octane chase movie – it keeps pulling over for sundown confabs on front porches and gas-station forecourts – but the relaxed approach allows the characters time to reveal themselves: the brooding Toby emerging as a damaged ladies’ man (seriousness becomes Pine here, after his action-figure Captain Kirk), the wilder Tanner tempering his recklessness with a knowing humour.
There’s so much yammering, in fact, that you begin to wonder if the film’s true subject is talk, and that these robberies were conceived as an excuse for the characters to hang out and shoot the breeze with one another. Certain scenes suggest what might have happened had the much-trumpeted Pacino-DeNiro meeting in Heat taken place not in a coffee shop but a retirement home rec room; as Marcus wonders, when Alberto grouchily orders him to leave his motel suite and watch his sports elsewhere on his own, “Where’s the fun in that?”
At every turn, Mackenzie spots the pleasures companionship can offer when out on the road or facing a tight spot – and the tragedy lying in wait when the bullets finally start flying, reducing free-flowing conversation to pained grunts or, worse still, deathly silence. Yet he’s optimist enough not to leave us with a bloodbath, but a promise of more chat to come – and I suspect the film will have worked charms enough by that point that most viewers wouldn’t mind being present in some form to eavesdrop.
In its big picture – the wide-open skies and endless Main Streets – Hell or High Water might be taken as a throwback to the Americana of Malick or Eastwood, depending on how you cast your vote; yet Mackenzie’s biggest achievement here lies in filling each frame with living, breathing, gabbing people, folk acting not out of greed, rather real, recognisable and – it turns out – basic human need. At a time when our cinemas sometimes feel as though they’ve been overrun by computer-enhanced superheroes, an unshowily analogue, old-hat proposition such as this could well seem thrillingly radical.
Hell or High Water is now playing in selected cinemas.