COPS AND ROBBERS, Cowboys and Indians, the wild wild West. All the familiar elements are here, de-familiarized in David Mackenzie’s atmospheric, well-written tale of greed, poverty, racism and love.
The action is set in a dry, scorching Texas, where everyone’s armed and where the gap between the law and vigilantism is razor thin. We could be back in the wild, quasi-lawless 1900’s world of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; but we’re not. Welcome to Texas (the US?) circa 2016.
The cops of the story are Marcus (an inspired Jeff Bridges), an ornery, racist old timer, on the verge of retirement and forever slagging off Injuns: “And just wait ’till I get to your Mexican half” he says to his Mexican/Indian partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who gives as good as he gets. (When Marcus is proven right on a hunch, Alberto quips, “even a blind pig will sometimes find a truffle”).
The quality of the acting and the dialogue between these two makes the partnership engagingly believable. You always get the sense that there’s a genuine affection underneath the barbs and crotchety-ness.
The robbers are the banks, insidiously robbing dirt-poor farmers of their bone-dry lands through reverse mortgages and bankruptcy guaranteeing products. But Marcus and Alberto aren’t after the banks; they’re after a pair of old fashioned, small time bank robbers: brothers Tarner (Ben Foster), the dumb violent one and Toby (Chris Pine), the smarter, emotionally wounded one.
These two are the ‘real-world’ version of Butch and Sundance, stripped of the glamour and fame. They’re just two poor Cowboys desperate to rob back from a bank that’s on the verge of robbing them of their (deceased) mother’s farm. Thieves stealing from thieves. Like Marcus and Alberto, the bickering, affectionate, co-dependent relationship of the brothers is marvellously evoked.
They hit a few banks, always with the code of stealing only from the banks and of never harming the customers. But, as always happens, there’s a need for one last score, one final robbery before they’ve got enough money to stop the forfeiture of their farm.
Director Mackenzie leans heavily toward the brothers: desperate times, he seems to suggest, demand desperate actions.
More than this, the robberies are played out in an oppressive, fatalistic universe (the vastness and emptiness of the terrain suggests timelessness, a place where the inhabitants are miniscule and almost insignificant). Here an idea of history and (Cowboy) identity is dying. We come across a group of disgruntled Cowboys, for instance, desperately herding their cattle to safety against a raging out of control wildfire that seems to be burning away all the elements of pride and self worth. This is a brave new world, the new frontier, from which there is no escape; one where poverty is inevitable and where the veins of violence and hostility run deep (in one exchange, a Comanche tells Tanner, “You know what Comanche means? It means everyone is my enemy”. Tanner replies, “Then I am Comanche too”) .
As the author of the robberies, all aimed at providing an out for his sons, Toby’s actions take on an existentialist, almost Operatic bravura. They are one man’s attempt to defy fate, to use the potential of his mother’s legacy (the farm) as a means of denying his kids his own legacy of drunkenness and violence.
Come hell or high water.
But the high water comes at a hellish price.
Hell or High Water is the first of the post summer, post blockbuster, Oscar intending movies.
And what a grand way to launch into Oscar season. Mackenzie’s sure-footed directing allows this very character-led story to unfold without undue sturm und drang. He paces the action beautifully, allowing enough deviations from the main plot to invite us into the lives of his protagonists; but always you know there’s a drumbeat toward the grand lethal climax. Mackenzie is working with an excellent script –terse, witty and observant of the Texan inflections of his characters -from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario); and Giles Nuttgens’ (Midnight’s Children) hot, bright cinematography evokes the aridity of the land (and the lives of the characters)
Way to go
Hell or High Water. Dir: David Mackenzie. With: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham. Writer: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens. Production Designer: Tom Duffield (Lone Survivor)