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Brit director David Mackenzie follows his searing 2013 prison drama, Starred Up, with a deep dive into archetypal Americana in Hell or High Water, a modern Western thriller that combines many of the same strengths as that earlier film. Those notably include unsettling violence and textural grit coupled with compassionate insight in a story that observes the behavioral codes of damaged men in a broken world. Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s script is sharper in its character-driven crime spree and chase mechanics than in its too-pointed social contextualization within a milieu bled dry by bankers. But sweaty performances, tight direction and evocative visuals keep the drama compelling.
Following its premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, the CBS Films release will open Aug. 12 in a limited rollout that deserves to find a receptive niche audience — although a less generic title would help. Its best marketing assets will be the magnetic appeal of Chris Pine and Ben Foster, playing semi-estranged brothers drawn together by pressing need, and a wonderful character turn from Jeff Bridges, delivering his most flavorful work since the Coens‘ True Grit.
Sheridan’s screenplay effectively juxtaposes two pairs of unlikely buddies. On the wrong side of the law are siblings Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), who grew up in poverty on a West Texas cattle ranch that’s been failing for as long as either of them can remember; Tanner got out of prison a year earlier and remained absent throughout the difficult, slow death of their mother. On the side of the badge are soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who endures the bantering insults of his boss about his mixed Native American-Mexican heritage, firing back with digs about the old dude’s creeping decrepitude.
It’s a story of cowboys and Indians, onetime kings of the plains now suspended in a place where both the cowpoke and the warrior have been pushed to near extinction by the greed and heartlessness of the New West. (The script’s original title was Comancheria, the Comanche name for where the drama is set, a region the tribe once occupied.)
While Tanner was behind bars, the family ranch fell deeper into debt and now risks foreclosure like countless other properties in the area. That economic plague has virtually wiped out entire communities. When divorced Toby learns there’s oil on his land, he carefully maps out a plan to pay off the reverse mortgage and back taxes. That would enable him to put the ranch into a trust for his two sons, both living with his bitter ex-wife (an underused Marin Ireland), thus ending his legacy of poverty.
To pull all this off, Toby asks for Tanner’s help in a series of bank robberies, sticking to small branches in the quiet early-morning hours, and non-traceable, low-denomination notes. Toby is calm, methodical and principled (stealing only the banks’ money, not that of customers who happen to be there), but Tanner is reckless and violent, getting an adrenaline rush off the outlaw escapades. That heightens the risk of them being apprehended by Marcus, whose guesswork about the plan proves fairly accurate.
Mackenzie’s sinewy direction makes the robbery sequences bristle with their sudden jolts of violence, and the getaway action and car chases charge up the atmosphere between dialogue-based scenes. Canny casting of character actors like Dale Dickey and Buck Taylor as bank staffers and customers also enhances the film’s highly specific regional color. While the setting is present-day, the film was obviously made before open-carry laws were passed in Texas. But the concealed-carry factor adds amusing moments of unpredictable cowboy behavior as the vigilante mentality of locals kicks in.
Where Sheridan’s script shows the writer’s hand at work more laboriously is in the frequent mentions of how the banks are robbing people blind as they struggle to make an honest living, particularly in sectors like farming where children can’t get away fast enough from the family history of hardship. There are lovely moments, too, however, such as a scene in which a diner waitress (Katy Mixon) establishes a gentle connection with sexy, taciturn Toby and then turns feisty later that day when Marcus asks her to hand over as evidence the $200 tip he left that will go toward her mortgage.
Commentary about the place of Native Americans in the contemporary landscape is also woven into the script, notably in scenes in which the brothers cross state lines into Oklahoma to launder the stolen cash at a casino. The theme is also present in Marcus’ needling mockery of Alberto. Their superbly played exchanges are terrific — graced with low-key humor but also poignancy as the affection and loneliness beneath the widowed older man’s teasing become evident. That aspect gets a resonant payoff in the drama’s final act.
Bridges fully embraces the crusty screen persona of his late-stage career to tremendously enjoyable effect. He chews on his words like tobacco in a performance that expertly balances deadpan with depth, making it clear that all those extra years have done nothing to blunt Marcus’ quicksilver intelligence. Birmingham makes a strong foil; Alberto gives as good as he gets, without concealing his bruised dignity. Pine also does nuanced work, exploring the burdens of a brooding man determined to make up for past mistakes. And Foster is a livewire rascal whose sense of sibling loyalty provides a subtle emotional undercurrent with notes of atonement.
As much as all four men are familiar types, the director, writer and actors imbue them with humanity, steering their arcs through tense action — including a nice throwback Western shootout on rocky terrain — to a quietly moving conclusion.
Shot in New Mexico, the film has an atmospheric sense of place that owes much to Giles Nuttgens‘ handsome cinematography and eloquent framing. From the expansive exteriors of endless flat land soaked in sleepy sunlight, beneath vast canopies of low-hanging clouds, to the warmly lit interiors, there are constant visual pleasures. Melancholy shots of half-dead towns with their weathered storefronts, abandoned pastures scattered with rusted farm equipment, and fields where cattle once grazed, now given over to oil derricks pecking at the ground, make the movie an elegy for a lost way of life. And with it, a defining regional identity. Also enhancing those images and that theme is the somber scoring of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose music has often served as an expressive bridge between the Old and New West.
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Film 44, LBI Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment
Distributor: CBS Films
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Buck Taylor
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn
Executive producers: Gigi Pritzker, Bill Lischak, Michael Nathanson, Rachel Shane, John Penotti, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Jake Roberts
Casting: Richard Hicks
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Rated R, 102 minutes
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