Hell or High Water is one of the most hyped films of the year with five star reviews coming from several directions. Fortunately it is very good, though it may not be to everyone’s taste. Any film that includes Townes Van Zandt on the soundtrack at the end of the opening credits is alright with me, so this may not be an entirely objective analysis of what is on offer. For most film fans the twin attractions of the film are likely to be that a) it is the second screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario the highly-rated film directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2015 and b) it features one of Jeff Bridges’ many film-stealing performances. Cinephiles may note that Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, the second Scot to make a Western in recent years after Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014) and a well-regarded filmmaker with many different kinds of films in his back catalogue. But is the film a Western? I’ll come back to its classification in a moment, first a brief plot outline (no spoilers).
The action takes place in West Central Texas, though the film was shot entirely in New Mexico. In fact the fictional space is perhaps better described as ‘Comancheria‘ (the working title of the film), the area dominated in the mid 19th century by the Comanche people that runs across the modern state lines of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – an important geographical factor in the film’s narrative. Two brothers set out on a carefully-designed campaign to rob small banks belonging to the same Texas banking company. They plan to steal only small bills and to launder the money quickly before using the new stash to pay off a large debt the family owes to the same bank. They have to get the money “by Hell or High Water” to meet a strict deadline within the next few days. One of the brothers (Tanner, played by Ben Foster) is a wild professional criminal, having already served time for bank robberies. The other brother (Toby, Chris Pine) is ‘clean’ and he is the one with the brains and the cunning plan. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement. He’s been waiting for an interesting ‘last case’ and he’s the only one who seems to understand what the brothers are up to. He has a sceptical partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – a Comanche/Mexican man who must put up with Marcus and his good-natured racist banter. So, two pairs of seemingly mismatched men in a contest. It’s a neat genre proposal.
For me this is a ‘modern Western’ and even possibly a ‘Twilight Western’, one of my favourite genres.The classic description of the twilight Western is that it tells a story about the ‘end of the West’, often featuring two men – one who is wedded to the cowboy code of honour and one who is prepared to change and move on. The ‘Dean’ of the genre in literary terms is Larry McMurtry, responsible for the novels that became the films Hud (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1971), both Twilight Westerns. The latter film starred Jeff Bridges and Timothy Buttons as two young characters in early 1950s Archer City – a small town in West Central Texas which in Hell or High Water is the site of the first bank robbery. It’s amazing (and slightly worrying) to see Jeff Bridges growing old from the fresh-faced kid in The Last Picture Show through countless Western-related roles (one of the most entertaining being the comedy Hearts of the West (1975)) to the aged Marcus. I think he plays older than he actually is in this new role. I guess he has now taken over the roles played by actors like Ben Johnson (who was the father figure to the two boys in The Last Picture Show). It’s clear in this new film that a way of life is dying – and that what’s replacing it does not necessarily signal ‘progress’. Marcus and Toby Howard are on opposite sides but they have something in common. One aspect of ‘progress’ seems to be that nearly every citizen in Texas carries a powerful handgun – which makes bank robbery a dangerous game. Is this a sly commentary on America’s (lack of) gun laws?
But this new film also embraces two other repertoires. One refers to what some critics have called ‘neo-noir’. In a visual sense there is nothing noirish about Hell or High Water, but it does draw on some of the same elements as crime films set in the South-West and based on ‘hardboiled’ pulp novels. Good examples would be Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), both based on Jim Thompson novels and Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot (1990) based on a Charles Williams novel. These all have the small town Texas locations and the violent action, but they also have a significant focus on female characters that perhaps isn’t present in Hell or High Water. Finally, there is a repertoire that goes back to the 1930s and ‘rural crime pictures’ that might be summed up by bringing together Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw’ and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The connection is the practices of banks to, in effect, ‘steal’ the land belonging to poor farmers during hard times when they can’t repay loans. Everyone knows this and therefore potential witnesses are not particularly helpful to law enforcement officers. My favourite scene in Hell or High Water is when the two Texas Rangers try to question the occupants of a diner where the brothers were eating before a robbery. Paul Howard Smith, simply listed as ‘Old Timer’ in the credits, is entirely convincing in response to the Rangers’ questions (see him in the trailer below). A semblance of empathy for the robbers is also evident in Alberto’s comment that “all this was my ancestor’s land before these folk took it and now it’s being taken from them – by these sons of bitches” (nodding towards the bank branch he’s watching). He understands what the robbers feel in ‘taking back’ what has been taken from them.
The performances in the film are all very good and it looks great thanks to British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who has worked with Mackenzie before and has many credits on both independent and Hollywood films). The soundtrack lists ‘original music’ by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I presume that they selected the other songs as well. I particularly enjoyed the Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch contributions as well as Townes. I’ve also discovered Chris Stapleton because of the film, but I don’t remember hearing the version of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ played on the trailer below. (I would have noticed it – it appears, sung by Bob Dylan in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973 as Slim Pickens is dying.) Some music fans would call some of these tracks ‘outlaw country’.
Hell or High Water is the kind of film that makes you think of so many other films and reminds you why you enjoy certain kinds of genre pictures. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m not giving much away in saying that the sight of police cars careering along dusty roads in pursuit of ‘outlaws’ is something that actually belongs in several different genre repertoires from Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) to Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974). We know what’s going to happen but it is still thrilling.