Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie / Script: Taylor Sheridan / Editing: Jake Roberts / DP: Giles Nuttgens / Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Cast: Jeff Bridges / Gil Birmingham / Chris Pine / Ben Foster
Turns out, that some crimes DO pay…
High Water is a difficult film to pigeonhole. On one level, it’s a straightforward heist-genre flick that ticks all the usual boxes: cops vs. robbers. A chase. A shootout. A downbeat ending to remind us (as if we needed it) that Crime Doesn’t Pay.
Yet it’s a film that’s doing so much more.
For a start, robbing a (string) of banks for the cash floats alone (ignoring the safes) is so… Old-fashioned, right? No-one does it anymore, which is our first clue as an audience, that we’re in unfamiliar territory. Even one of the witnesses, a weathered cowboy who’s seen it all, can’t believe it: “Seems foolish. Days of robbing banks. Trying to live and spend the money. All gone.”
Things start brightly, with a couple of back-to-back robberies, from lonely, fusty branches of the same bank, that look as if they’re teetering on the edge themselves. Our anti-heroes are Tanner (Ben Foster), who’s been out of prison for a year (when it comes to jobs like these, he has plenty of experience) and younger brother Toby (Chris Pine). Toby’s had it rough as well. First, a tough divorce, then caring for his dying mother, while the bank threatened to foreclose on her desolate ranch. In their twisted world-view, it’s almost poetic justice to rob from that same bank in-turn. It’s also Tanner’s way of making amends, for the time he wasn’t around to help (like I said, twisted).
Despite Robin Hood’s largesse towards the poor, The Sheriff of Nottingham still chased him into the Greenwood. So it is here, with a couple of Texas Rangers in hot pursuit: Agents Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). It’s their relationship which proves the most satisfying to me, thanks to writer Taylor Sheridan’s use of a bevy of gentle-barbed insults aimed at Alberto’s mixed-race heritage; shorthand for the depth and duration of their bond. They are brothers as much as Toby & Tanner; they just happen to be on the right side of the law.
Inevitably, the robbers get greedy, but it’s Tanner – not Toby – who’s read the angles first. He knows that a bigger branch will cause more problems, but he’s in love with the notion of being on the lam, even in a place as windswept and as desolate as West Texas. His other ambition – to dodge a return to prison – is unavoidable once he kills bystanders. He knows that if caught by men such as Marcus & Alberto, there’s only one outcome. He knows that when (not if) things turn really sour, all he can do is buy enough time for Toby to get away clear. And so it proves… He remains ‘Lord of the Plains’ in true Comanche fashion, right to the end.
And what of our ‘Lone Rangers’? There’s a symmetry here, too, that’s almost predestined. It’s credit to Sheridan’s script that when it happens, it feels organic and unforced: just like the film itself, for here is a work full of clues to its wider theme.
You just have to glimpse roadsides littered with ‘For Sale’ signs. The empty shops & vacant lots. Graffiti that reads ‘3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us’. The rancher driving his herd ahead of a wildfire, bemoaning the reluctance of his kids to live that life… This country offers little but a hard-scrabble existence and to make it here, you need a pragmatic, can-do attitude of the kind that forged the American Dream in the first place.
The problem today however, as opposed to fifty years ago is that, in common with every other Western economy, America’s manufacturing base has been hollowed-out. The opportunities once there have long-gone and all that’s left are the leftovers from others more prosperous. No small irony, then, that Toby’s motivation is cleverly revealed in the film’s coda: to provide an income-stream and a better future for his two boys, to break ‘the disease’ of poverty, that’s long cursed his family. And isn’t that all any father wants for his kids?
What’s the message, here? That in places such as West Texas, even robbing banks shows a flash of that same pioneering spirit? Besides, one of Toby’s kids might end-up discovering a cure for cancer as a result of his father’s crimes, so does that make his dad a Hero, as opposed to an anti-Hero?
The first film by Brit Director David Mackenzie to be set in the U.S., High Water is a successful next step following his previous Indie hit (and Mister Gee favourite) Starred Up. For High Water, he took a new piece from Sheridan (writer of the wondrous thriller Sicario) and forged an elegiac piece that’s as much a State of the Nation address as it is heist movie; arguably, something only a foreign director could achieve.
Credit, too, to an excellent score by Nick Cave, that manages to be simultaneously moody and elegantly spare. Photography by Giles Nuttgens is a perfect foil, being at times, sweeping, transportive and composed with a knowing eye. If you like spare landscapes, I think you’d like this film. It’s just beautiful at times; painterly.
Problems? Not many of note. When taken within the confines of its genre, this is as fine a piece as you’re likely to see all-year and it’ll be fascinating to see what Mackenzie does next.
Sometimes even a blind pig finds a truffle.