Sicario was one of 2015’s most pleasant, nerve-shredding surprises, unforgivingly directed by Denis Villeneuve, and from the pen of Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan’s script for Hell or High Water won the Black List of most-liked unproduced screenplays in 2012, and it finally sees the light of day in 2016 under the direction of David Mackenzie, the Scot who brought Jack O’Connell to prominence in 2013 with Starred Up.
Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine as Toby, a divorced father of two who robs banks with his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), to raise money to pay the reverse mortgage on their late mother’s ranch, and save it from foreclosure. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus, the archetypal, curmudgeonly, days-from-retirement Texas ranger who picks up the case. As the brothers’ deadline with the bank approaches, their schemes become riskier, with Tanner’s reckless nature bringing them dangerously close to justice.
The film’s opening shot captures some graffiti that reads ‘3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us’, identifying it at the outset as the latest in a genre that you might call post-crash cinema. 99 Homes with Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, and Oscar-winner The Big Short would be obvious examples. Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, with Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, is definitely the high watermark to date. Foreclosed homes, moribund towns and suffocating debt give context to our protagonists’ actions without ever really forgiving them.
Though the title, setting and excellent Nick Cave soundtrack make Hell or High Water sound like a Western, the director is more interested in fleshing out the three leads than orchestrating gunfights, which makes the tension and payoffs in the third act much more satisfying. Chris Pine plays Toby with an air of sadness, a passenger and occasionally a prisoner in his own plan, hiding much of himself behind those big blue eyes, cajoled along gleefully by Tanner. Ben Foster is developing a nice line in playing deeply unpleasant Texans, after great work as Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears’ The Program. Although clearly unhinged, Tanner is at least driven by a misguided sense of family loyalty.
Marcus and his younger partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) mirror their dysfunctional buddy dynamic to an extent, with Marcus constantly insulting the junior ranger, but unable to hide his affection for him and his fear of loneliness once he retires. His character is essentially a cross between his roles in True Grit and Crazy Heart but Bridges is, as ever, intensely likeable, even when alternating between unintelligible dialect and racist epithets. I’m not sure that it gets its message across as pointedly as The Big Short, or quite so elegantly as Killing Them Softly, but strong work throughout from the three leads and a stunning turn from the desolate Texas landscape make this a fulfilling way to spend a couple of hours.
Hell or High Water is currently showing in UK cinemas.