I love it when this happens, when a film comes out of nowhere and pleasantly surprises you. ‘Hell or High Water’ is without a doubt the best films of the year so far; a sparse modern day western that like all great classic western films is deceptive in its simplicity. It reminded me constantly of the great cinema of the seventies — Badlands (1974), for example. Films that had remarkable acting, direction and writing but also had tremendous atmosphere. Yet even with the atmosphere as a secondary character, the characters in the film are what makes it explosive and as real as anything grabbing headlines. It is a stunning, urgent work that demands to be seen and appreciated. Directed perfectly by David MacKenzie, the film seems destined for the Academy Awards and ten best lists come years end. He arrives with the power Scorsese arrived, the work announcing a major new talent.
Like the great westerns of John Ford, where the landscape dwarfs the men settling it, Texas, modern day is a vast sprawling dust land, vistas that never seem to end displaying a harsh, hot, spiky and unforgiving landscape. But it is their land, it belongs to them, the Texans who have lived in it and worked it for years. They are attached to it like the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) were always going to be a part of the land they worked and eventually abandoned. The roots of the very existence go deep into the earth, it is so much part of them they are inherently part of it too because it is home, it is part of their identity.
Seventies cinema had an honesty to it that was rarely there in American movies before the late sixties, it felt new, and that sort of honesty is here in Hell in High Water, you can just feel it, and incredibly in this age of comic book and super hero films, it feels new again. Perhaps because this film is actually about something is the reason it feels new, something more than car chases, flying heroes and blowing stuff up.
Two brothers who have grown up in poverty, Tobey (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are about to lose their family land, foreclosed on by the bank, who they see as the enemy. The land was their grandparents, their parents and is now theirs, and Tobey has very quietly found oil on the grounds and wants to keep it long enough to announce that discovery. He wants to try to do something for the daughters he has not seen in over a year, he wants to do something with his life, something better. He is the smarter of the two, certainly the less dangerous as Tanner is a wild card, a cowboy who has done time, and will do anything not to go back. When they decide to rob the very bank that holds the note on their property, Tobery does so to prevent the bank from foreclosing, while Tanner does so for the thrill, and once he does it he does not want to stop. They have a brilliant plan, from the execution to the getaway to the laundering of the money and it all works until Tanner goes solo one day and robs a bank without his brother.
This draws the unwanted attention of a smart as whip old Sheriff Marcus, a tough as nails bird who is always one step ahead of anyone he encounters because he studies people. He is one of those guys who just knows any room he comes into he is going to be the smartest, and uses it in his job. Every line is delivered with purpose and a smile behind the eyes, and he wants to get these boys before it escalates and someone gets hurt or worse.
It unfolds like a cat and mouse game, though one with furious energy and a real sense of danger and menace in the air. The banks are doing it to the brothers, they are doing it to the banks and the people who work there, and the Sheriff is going to do it to the boys if he can catch them. No one is really safe in the film, and we know it is not going to end well for someone.
The performances are electrifying, especially Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the brothers. Not only do they feel like brothers, they bicker like brothers, they argue like brothers, but they love like brothers too and always have each others backs. Pine, who has had some trouble finding himself as an actor, superb as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots, good in other things, but never brilliant like he is here. And I mean brilliant. There is something haunting behind his eyes, something that drives people to do stupid things when they know they should not, his eyes are filled with regret. He has made mistakes along the way, knows it and would sell his soul to the devil to change it, but he is smart enough to know he cannot, so he moves forward.
Ben Foster is a revelation as Tanner, electrifying, astounding, and possessed of a genuine danger. He is hard, hardened by prison but also by life, and enjoys getting “the man” when he jacks banks. Armed, we know he would have no trouble shooting someone if they get in the way, in fact what is unnerving is that he almost wishes for it. Like Sal in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) he is waiting for his brother to say the word before he starts shooting. When they are robbing a bank he is having the time of his life, as though he were alive. His eyes dance with menace, there is real psychosis there, and what is further frightening is that Tanner himself knows what he is. So good in previous films such as 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Alpha Dog (2008) and best of all in The Messengers (2009) with Woody Harrelson for which he should have been up for an Oscar, his star has been in the rise for a long time and he has finally found a role that showcases his immense gifts. Eyes blazing, we are staring into hell.
Oscar winner Jeff Bridges is superb as Marcus, his raspy voice no doubt the result of too many cigars or chewing tobacco, his face a wrinkled mass of granite made so by the intense Texas sun, his mind always going. In the last seven years Bridges has done some of the best work of his career, including winning an Oscar for Crazy Heart (2009) and he deserved a second one for True Grit (2010). He could and should land a supporting nod for this.
MacKenzie directed and wrote the film. His confidence and focus will make you believe that you have seen his work before, like he has been around for years. The reason? Because the film feels like the best of the seventies films, and the ghosts of Lumet, Ashby, and the work of Scorsese, Malick even Coppola have guided him to this place. It is a stunning piece of work.