Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie

It looks like a Western. The two protagonists wear cowboy hats and rob banks. The landscape is dry, scrubby, a beige monotone, a big sky. There are guns, oh yes. But still everything is changed. The machismo and the myth has gone out of it. The one-horse towns are scrappy dead places. The cowboys ride in clapped out cars. Native Americans have intermarried with other disadvantaged groups, their once proud names now a synonym for gambling halls.

The ramshackle Harvey farm, in arrears to the bank, has become suddenly worth something, after oil, that other Texas staple, was found, and the bank are greedy to repossess it. So divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine), who has spent the last months caring for their dying mother there, has summoned jailbird brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help save his sons’ legacy and pay off the debts, somehow. The plan is small-scale robberies, till contents only, of the small branches of the bank that’s doing them over. A decent man, Toby  is ill at ease and reluctant – it’s not admirable, smacking elderly bank employees and frightening women, but pretty harmless. But the hardbitten Tanner doesn’t like to stick with plans.

Officer Marcus (the inimitable Jeff Bridges) is slightly wearied by the prospect of catching these petty criminals. Bridges is as crusty and laid back as you’ve ever seen him, dreaming of and dreading his imminent retirement, joshing his native American/Mexican sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham) with wry casual racist chat which disguises the real bond between the two.  All four central performances are stellar, understated, full of painful melancholy but often funny too – though it’s hardly the caper movie some of the film’s publicity inexplicably suggests. I haven’t felt so troubled and involved in a hold up since Dog Day Afternoon. Chris Pine in particular shows what fine acting he is capable of. But the acting quality extends down the line too , to Katy Mixon as a warm-hearted waitress who in one of the most poignant moments of the film offers Toby an impossible chance of comfortable normality, and the splendid veteran Margaret Bowman providing light relief with a ‘diner’ scene to rank with the best.

The demise of the west – at best always a flattering heroic gloss on a fairly dreadful period of history – is also a token of what has happened to America, the western world, even. You took everything from us, as Alberto the half-Native American officer says, and now they are taking everything from you, as he gazes out over the bleak street where elderly women shuffle past cheap chain stores. The banks, money, rule. The contrast between the deep and decent impulses of the characters and the world in which they have to operate is painful.  And it all ends, as you thought it might, in desperation on a dusty hillside under the Texas sun. You won’t see a better American film all this year.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September

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