Film review: Hell or High Water

by James Robins / 07 November, 2016

Hell or High Water.

An honest look at the wreckage and destitution of modern Texas’ parched dustbowls.

“Fast cash when you need it,” reads the billboard taunting an empty West Texas highway. Two brothers, quiet divorcee Toby (Chris Pine) and sea­soned con Tanner (Ben Foster), roll past it in a behemoth pickup. They’ve just got their “fast cash” by ­robbing a bank, which is certainly one way of doing it. Tanner howls gleefully, the thrill of pistol-­whipping a bolo-tied clerk ­surging through him. Toby looks out the ­windscreen languidly. He’ll get no ­pleasure from this sorry business. There are still two more branches to hit.

They roll on, past the empty parking lots and loan shark hoardings. Past the oil derricks pumping outside a closed-down gas station. This is modern Texas, cowboy, where those left behind have Harley-Davidson handlebars for facial hair, an enormous handgun tucked cosily into the waistband of their old Levis, and not much else. You wouldn’t think so, but justice still functions in this parched dustbowl. It comes, slow-moving, in the form of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an old-fashioned lawman in a Stetson and spurred boots, whose voice sounds like gurgling gravel drowned in acid.

It takes an outsider to look honestly at this proud part of America, to see the wreckage and destitution. ­Scottish director David Mackenzie (Starred Up, ­Perfect Sense) does so by skilfully and­ ­stylishly updating the Bonnie and Clyde motif, pairing it with the morality tale of 99 Homes – two films that have economic depressions as their context. He marshals extraordinary performances from the leading trio, turning villains into ­fleetingly loveable rogues.

The result is an elegiac, unhurried, strangely funny and ultimately ­masterful film – more Townes Van Zandt than Randy Travis, if you know your country music. If this is the direction western cinema is heading, bring on the rodeo. ••••½

IN CINEMAS NOW

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

A big science investment - but where’s the transparency?
99199 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z Tech

A big science investment - but where’s the transpa…

by Peter Griffin

An extra $420m is being pumped into the National Science Challenges - but the reasoning behind the increased investment won't be released.

Read more
NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – and a wild past
99182 2018-11-16 13:32:58Z Music

NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – an…

by Donna Chisholm

We revisit this profile on award-winning guitarist Gray Bartlett, who's just released a new album, Platinum!

Read more
Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on what his creation has become
99178 2018-11-16 13:13:08Z Tech

Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on …

by Peter Griffin

"We were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn't even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it," says Vint Cerf.

Read more
Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of Mary Queen of Scots
99165 2018-11-16 10:51:28Z Win

Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of …

by The Listener

Starring Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart.

Read more
Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct
99155 2018-11-16 09:33:23Z Auckland Eats

Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct

by Alex Blackwood

North Shore residents will have plenty to choose from at Goodside.

Read more
The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more