Director: David Mackenzie
Runtime: 102 minutes
August, like January, is considered a dead zone for movies (albeit moreso for big studio releases). With such a dour summer movie season, August 2016 was being set up as a true wasteland. And yet, in this strange, topsy turvy year, the summer’s final act is shaping up to be its redemption. August kicked with two delightful family-oriented outings (Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake and Laika’s stop-motion Kubo and the Two Strings), and is now beginning to deliver high end material for older audiences as well. Case in point, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a modern western thriller that takes the cat-and-mouse plotting of No Country for Old Men and makes it more accessible, without being watered down.
Set in the sun-baked small towns of west Texas, Hell subverts our expectations from its opening shot. After a fairly standard bank heist, the story immediately takes us to another one taking place only hours (minutes?) later. Rather than clue us in from the beginning, the script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) drops us in the middle of a plan that’s fully in motion. There are no montages of plans being made or tools being acquired. Like bank-robber brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine), the whole movie just keeps on going.
In retrospect, it makes Mackenzie look like an odd choice to sit in the director’s chair. The UK-born helmer has never been afraid to jump genres. But nothing in the sci-fi romance Perfect Sense or prison drama Starred Up indicated that he’d be capable of delivering such a propulsive and distinctly American effort. But with Sheridan’s deft, often humorous script as a foundation, Mackenzie is able to push himself into new territory and pull it off with the confidence of an old pro. Even when the characters throw out cliches (ranging from tired colloquialisms to “that’s what she said” jokes), the actors carry it off so effortlessly that it feels perfectly natural amid the more natural, human moments.
Mackenzie’s strength has always been his ability to work with actors, even when guiding them through uneven material, and Hell or High Water is no exception. Pine and Foster are both excellent as the Howard brothers, convincingly passing as family while also intelligently illustrating their differences. Pine’s role is lowkey compared to his swaggering, womanizing James Kirk, and it’s refreshing to see him quietly nail such different material. Foster, meanwhile, is electrifying as the live wire of the two. Despite having the flashier role, he never plays to the camera, and maintains an unshakeable immersion in his role without self-consciously Acting. Jeff Bridges does fine work as well as the crotchety deputy on the brothers’ trail. He also has a great deal of fun trading insults with his partner, the half-Native American, half-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham, a dry-witted delight).
The supporting cast is stacked with solid performances as well. Everyone involved seems excited to be working on such a project, even when they’re only given a few lines. Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone), Katy Mixon (TV’s Mike and Molly), and Marin Ireland (as Pine’s ex-wife) are all welcome presences (I assume the only reason Margo Martindale never showed up was because her schedule was just too crowded). The MVP of the supporting players, however, might have to go to the leathery waitress who tends to Bridges and Birmingham in a small-town steakhouse. She delivers a small rant with timing that many aspiring comedians would kill for.
And just as it seems the script might lose its way when forced to wrap things up, the film surprises yet again. Various family issues are sorted out and motivations are clarified, but Sheridan never goes overboard with the details. We know enough about the characters and what they want, and Sheridan doesn’t break the spell with long-winded idealogical monologues, even when touching on issues like predatory lending. There’s a rich treasure trove of ideas and emotions swirling underneath the surface, but the lush western visuals and delicate score keep things cinematic. What could have been a pretentious, tonally-erratic drama is, instead, a thoughtful story mixing finely honed character dynamics with elegantly-woven suspense.