Present-day western Hell or High Water is ‘a classic Robin Hood tale retold with modern complications’ says MacDara Conroy
Making for an austerity-themed double bill alongside home-invasion-with-a-twist thriller Don’t Breathe, which also opens this Friday, present-day western yarn Hell or High Water is at heart a classic Robin Hood tale, but retold with much more modern complications.
Cowpoke brothers, designer-stubbled Toby (Chris Pine) and twitchy ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), are robbing from the rich to give to the poor, in a manner of speaking. The bank’s foreclosing on their late mother’s farm, which happens to be sitting on a reservoir of oil. So they’re paying off the debt with the bank’s own money by knocking off branches across West Texas, laundering the cash at a casino out of state and burying the getaway cars on their property.
It’s a pretty ingenious scheme, and it’s got the Texas Rangers on their trail, close-to-retirement Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner Alberto (Gil Bermingham), scratching their heads as the boys inch closer to their final score with just days to spare before they lose it all. Naturally, mistakes will be made, loyalties will be tested and hard truths will be revealed before the guns come out and there’s no turning back.
The scorched earth and machismo of Cormac McCarthy adaptations like The Road and No Country For Old Men is an obvious touchstone for Scottish director David Mackenzie’s follow-up to his acclaimed prison drama Starred Up. But maybe Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is a closer relative, in terms of a foreign filmmaker beguiled, and overwhelmed, by the vastness of the West – lovingly lensed here by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) – and the death of the American dream.
Meanwhile, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan brings the dab hand with tension he wielded with sublime effect in last year’s stunning narco-thriller Sicario, giving us plenty of moments pregnant with violence, though not with the same focused intensity.
It’s more about the finer details here. Brotherhood is a major theme, in both the troublesome relationship between Toby and Tanner, and Ranger Marcus’ constant needling of his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner. These are the things that will linger long after the sound of gunfire has faded.
Mackenzie and Sheridan also temper the boys-own-adventure romanticism with a supporting cast of capable women eager to cut through the crap. A buxom diner server (Katy Mixon, Eastbound & Down) lets the lawmen have it over a $200 tip that means food on her table. An elderly waitress at a small-town steakhouse doesn’t take orders, she doles them out with vitriol. Our anti-hero Pine, in other worlds the dashing captain, doesn’t necessarily make up with his estranged wife and kids. The patriarchy don’t mean shit to them.
It’s all set to a sunburnt soundtrack by Nick Cave and regular Bad Seeds/Grinderman collaborator Warren Ellis that goes a little heavy on its signature motif in the early stages before settling down into a more thoughtful mood. Much like the film itself, its climactic, heart-in-mouth shootout notwithstanding.
Hell or High Water opens nationwide on Friday September 9th
Also published on Medium.