The thing today’s filmmakers tend to forget when they’re making their retro or modernized Westerns, is how often the genre was about more than itself. High Noon isn’t just about a honorable man in an aloof town; it’s about the red scare and HUAC. The Ox-Bow Incident isn’t just about the murder of a rancher; it’s about the horror and danger of mob justice. The Searchers isn’t just about a quest for a kidnapped girl; it’s about the frothing irrationality of racism. You get the idea – and yet too often contemporary directors slap cowboy hats on their stars, put the bad guys in black, and walk through the paces. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water calls upon the tropes of the genre at will: the crusty lawman, the criminal brothers with conflicting temperaments, stand-offs and bank robberies, the sins of the father passed on to the son. But it relocates them into an urgently contemporary setting – one signaled not just by the cars and the cell phones, but the circumstances the conflict sprouts from.
The lawman’s name is Marcus, and he’s played by Jeff Bridges, one of the few guys who can convincingly play this kind of role anymore (Kurt Russell and Tommy Lee Jones are the others, if you’re keeping track). He looks comfortable in his hat and boots, and disperses his lines in a kind of half-drawl, half-growl. Creeping up on mandatory retirement, he gets caught up in the crime spree of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who are hitting banks across West Texas – mostly branches of one particular bank, for reasons that will become clear.
That storytelling trick – of holding back exactly what they’re up to until as late as possible – could’ve backfired in the hands of a lesser screenwriter, but scripter Taylor Sheridan ( Sicario ) knows he’s got leeway in the crime and Western devices. And director Mackenzie situates his actors in such a way that we understand their dynamic before they’ve even been properly introduced – he goes tight on their ski masks, revealing the coldness in one set of eyes, and the panic in another.
All three actors make this thing sing, projecting a lived-in authenticity that’s matched by Mackeznie’s (mostly) relaxed style – this is a movie that knows these coffee shops, motels, and Indian casinos, and luxuriates in them. (There’s a great little scene in a diner, with a nasty spark plug of a waitress who orders for you, that’s so authentic it feels like a documentary.) Yet there’s an overriding sense that this durable way of life isn’t long for this world; a cowboy rustling his herd away from a wildfire muses, “And I wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a livin’,” which, in retrospect, might be the theme of the entire movie.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie’s camera lingers on the edges of the frame. In the first scene, he stays on a bank’s exterior wall long enough to read the graffiti: “3 tours in Iraq and no bailout for us.” When Marcus and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) post up in a motel for the night, prosperity gospel blasts from the television (“He wouldn’t know God if he crawled up his pantleg and bit him on the pecker,” Marcus grouses). As the bank-robbing brothers, and the lawmen pursuing them, shuttle from town to town, we keep catching sight of the highway signs, for debt relief and payday loans. And when one of them knocks over the bank across from a diner, one of the old-timers who spends his day there doesn’t seem much bothered by it: “It’s been robbin’ me thirty years.”
You get the idea. Yet Hell or High Water isn’t just timely, or angry; it soaks economic distress into its canvas, which then colors the picture without overpowering it, creating a general sense of desperation that motors the entire narrative. (“You talk like we ain’t gonna get away with this,” Toby tells his brother, who replies, “I’ve never known anyone who got away with anything, ever. Have you?”) Above all else, it’s a crackling good action picture, as riveting in its quiet scenes of thick tension (like Pine’s stop at a road block, or the final, loaded dialogue scene) as in its masterfully executed shoot-outs. And in those respects, at this date in August, I say give me a well-made little genre exercise like this over a bloated franchise flick any day of the week. This one’s got something on its mind to boot, which makes it one of the few must-see movies of the season.
Hell or High Water is out today.