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

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