Film Review: Cleverly-written "Hell or High Water" is a nuanced exploration of brotherhood and retribution
In West Texas, debt and destitution are accepted facts of life, farmers are being steadily replaced with oil pumps and Beer O’Clock is a legitimate measure of time. Hell or High Water is the latest screenwriting effort from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, and it goes a long way to paint a rich picture of the film’s setting. Side characters are used masterfully to craft a dry and beaten down land; from the crotchety old waitress who had been working at the same diner for 44 years, serving only medium-rare T-bone the whole time, to the man who witnessed a robbery and only has to say “[I saw] a bank get robbed that’s been robbing me for 30 years.”
The robbers in this scenario are brothers played by Christopher Pine and Ben Foster who don ski masks in a bid to save their family farm from the bank’s grasp. Set the task of tracking down the felonious brothers are Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto, played by the loveably grisly Jeff Bridges on the cusp of retirement and the quick-witted Gil Birmingham. It is the duality between these male partnerships that drive the film, each has it’s own equal weight of animosity and brotherhood, whether it is bound by blood, a badge or a sense of duty. From the detectives, the audience is given a reflexive social commentary of what is befalling their state. Birmingham and Bridges' performances are comical but not bumbling, they may be older than the bank robbers that they’re chasing but this does not discount their ability. In many ways, Bridges character reminded me of No Country for Old Men; and if a comparison to Cormac McCarthy is not a compliment to the film’s writing, I don’t know what is.
Similarities aside, do not be fooled by the sparse farmland, because this film isn’t a western. And for that I’m grateful. It transcends the rigidity of a cops and robbers storyline for a more nuanced exploration of male partnerships and brotherhoods. Although race relations are touched upon, the only cowboys and Indians dynamic you’ll glimpse takes its form in a David versus Goliath battle against the bank. The rhetoric of a disillusioned community bought together by their hatred of the exploitive banking system is so common in post-Global Financial Crisis America and is also subtly presented the films portrayal of mid-west vigilantism. An obstinate distrust of authority pushes the townsfolk to take the law unto their own hands, speaking to major themes of justice, retribution and power.
Marcus: If you see anyone looking sideways, you call me
Townsperson: If I see anyone looking sideways, they’re going to be swinging from a tree
Marcus: That would simplify things — for everyone except you
Townsperson: That’s if you can find the tree.
Hell or High Water is such a well-balanced film. Car scenes were used with the efficacy of True Detective to build character and produce dialogue that drives the plot. Sheridan has again proven himself as a skilful and clever writer, nothing felt overly expositionary which I think that’s a true sign of a good film, no one is holding your hand throughout. As for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score…. These guys know how to complement a scene and not command it, the music is ambient, it belays the morose tone and yet, it is evocative. The score gingerly lifts the film to new heights, fitting every moment like a dearly beloved and well-worn leather boot. (If it’s not clear enough – I’m probably going to invest in this ergonomic soundscape when it comes out on vinyl).
When it comes to film, I’m guided by a single principle that is so well expressed by Alexander Pope: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Walking into Hell or High Water, I wasn’t really expecting anything, I went in blind, and well, “sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.”