There is a certain mythic quality to the western genre, something that is timeless in its appeal. It might be because of the archetypal characters: the unpredictable outlaw, the quiet hero, the hard-as-nails lawman. Or maybe it’s the setting that somehow remains the same despite the passage of time. Dusty towns and plains serve as the stage for tales of revenge, family, and greed. The best of these stories are explorations of morality and violence. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny struggles with the sins of his past as the era of the Wild West comes to a close. No Country for Old Men is a meditation on evil and the inexorable, relentless march of time. Director David Mackenzie’s latest film, Hell or High Water is an exploration of brotherhood and (in)justice in a time where villains aren’t people, but corporations.
Toby and Tanner Howard are bank robbers. They might not be stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but their plight is understandable; they seek to wrong those that wronged them. Yet, in a modern twist, the subject of their revenge is not a person, but a bank. The less one knows about the circumstances of their struggle at the onset, the better, but I will say that Hell or High Water has three of the most compelling characters in a drama this year and the bulk of the film deals with the Howard brothers’ relationship to one another. Toby is an intelligent, quiet man whose potential seems to have been hamstrung by the circumstances of his birth; his family has always been poor and in the barrens of West Texas, opportunities are scarce. His brother, Tanner, is an ex-con coming off of a long prison sentence. He is a man accustomed to violence and accepting of his role as an outcast, standing against everything and everyone. Yet, somehow, the film makes him a sympathetic character, a person with absolutely nothing save the love he has for his brother. Together, they bond as they hit bank after bank in an attempt to raise a specific sum of money so that Toby can finally look toward the future. However, one man stands in their way: Marcus Hamilton.
Marcus is an ageing ranger who fears that his impending retirement is more of a death sentence than a reward for his years of service. A man out of time, Marcus – affably sarcastic and always ready with a cutting remark – seems as if he was born in the wrong era. His heroes didn’t get to retire. Theirs was the way of the gun and in the Howard brothers he sees the opportunity for a grand exit. Along with his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner, Alberto, Marcus pursues the Howard brothers across West Texas, trying to piece together evidence to form a possible explanation for their drastic actions.
All of this drama is set against desolate plains and towns lost to time. Closed-down shops and dilapidated trailers line dusty streets, while cloudless skies exaggerate the immense emptiness of the countryside. Adding to the film’s grit is a subtle undercurrent of irony; a number of roadside signs are spot-lighted, claiming “Cheap Loans” and “Fast Cash.” Like 2012’s Brad Pitt hitman drama, Killing Them Softly, Hell or High Water has a lot to say about the evils of greed and corporate overreach, however, unlike that film (which I also think is brilliant) it manages to separate itself by its relative silence. Exposition is doled out in sparse tidbits, muttered without context, leaving the viewer to piece together the circumstances of the Howards’ crime spree as the movie progresses, ramping up to a breathless ending of nail-biting intensity. Marcus’ backstory is likewise one of mystery until the mystique exuded in earlier scenes gives way to the sobering reality of a man facing the next phase of his life with no clue as to how he should proceed.
Despite the extremity of the characters’ actions in the film, nothing ever feels disingenuous or heightened. Rather the Howards’ financial woes seem to be the very same that a large number of lower to middle class Americans are facing today. Marcus’ struggles point more toward the passage of time and the developing complexity of the modern world, a place controlled by faceless entities and esoteric laws, neither of which a bullet can harm. In pursuing the Howards, Marcus seems to chase an idyllic past, one that might never have existed anywhere but his mind, where lawmen fought outlaws and bullets flew; no red tape, no post-incident reports, no retirement.
Overall this is a character piece and every actor present is at the top of their game. Chris Pine finally finds a drama beyond Star Trek worthy of his talent. His Toby is a weary, reasonable man pushed to the edge by things far larger than himself. His desperation is palpable, but like all parts of his character, quiet. He doesn’t want to rob these banks, he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Ben Foster (The Messenger, Lone Survivor) finally gets a chance to shine as Tanner, the loose-cannon Howard that is at once violent and unpredictable, yet warm and brotherly. In every action, Foster imbues within Tanner a sense of foreboding; he’s a man that seems to have accepted that he is to burn bright, then be snuffed out by a world in which he is the “other,” an unsociable outcast that drives away good things. Without the pitch perfect chemistry between the Howard brothers, this film would have been a failure. Thankfully, Pine and Foster are great together, seeming like old friends that fight, joke, and share real moments of earnest emotion.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges turns in one of the finest performances of his career. Behind Marcus’ plain-speaking, jovial demeanor, the viewer can sense his growing anxiety as the end of his career looms; he’s searching madly for a reason to feel like it was all worth it, even as the world he spent decades protecting falls apart around him. In the Howards, he may have found his reason. Bridges, gruff, yet always charming, makes Marcus a character you root for despite you investment in the Howard’s plight.
In this way, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) has succeeded in making an excellent film. He lets moments breathe, allows for silence, and lets tension build and build until you can’t take it anymore. The best part is that all of this is elevated by a trio of three-dimensional characters you actually care about. Aided by a tight script from Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario, one of last year’s best) and the stylish, yet utilitarian work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Perfect Sense, What Maisie Knew), Hell or High Water is easily one of the best films to come out this year and one that I hope receives at least some attention for its performances come Oscar season.
It may not revive the western genre, but Hell or High Water does prove that the modern western is still fertile ground for exploring potent themes about violence, family, and time.