Any long time readers of this blog will know that, for reasons unbeknownst to me, I have something of a penchant for Westerns, both period and contemporary. This year has been a mixed bag with regards to that genre with Jane Got A Gun failing to impress but Bone Tomahawk being one of my favourites of the year so far. Where exactly would new release Hell Or High Water rank?
Falling in the contemporary Western category, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who go on a bank robbing rampage in an attempt to gain the funds to save their deceased mother’s ranch from impending loan sharks. Being closeely tracked by a soon to be retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham), the narrative is a satisfying slow burn that wracks up the tension expertly, all of a sudden switching the tone from semi comic, almost happy go lucky buddy movie to intense edge of the seat thriller with pin point accuracy. In terms of its place within the genre, Hell Or High Water is almost something of a ‘post-modern’ Western if there were such a thing. Our characters dress, walk, talk and act like cowboys, yet all of the traditional ways of that lifestyle are absent in favour of a much less ideal reality where businesses are going bust and towns are financially ruined. The one thing that appears to be constant in most Western themed films is that life is incredibly tough, but this modern take replaces outlaws with reverse mortgages and creates a really interesting dynamic. This is perhaps perfectly displayed in the metaphor of the two Texas Rangers, one caucasian and one of Native American descent, historical foes, working together to approach the problem that has been created from a newer, more modern enemy, big banks, loan sharking and reverse mortgages.
However, do not let this metaphorical analysis fool you in to thinking that the film doesn’t contain much of the shoot ’em up type action that one comes to expect from a Western thriller. There is no denying that the term ‘slow burn’ is completely appropriate, but the growing narrative is interspersed with moments of action and violence that are only heightened by the more understated tone of the surrounding scenes. As with many of the best examples of this genre, the characters are all flawed in their own unique ways, every one an anti-hero of sorts, with no cardboard cutout heroes and villains to root for and against. Though fans of more traditional narratives prefer a clear split between good and evil, I find that this more human approach gives a much more interesting and challenging viewing experience. When you have grown to like characters from both sides of the moral divide, it makes the conclusion of the film a much more engaging and immersive watch, with investment on either side making any outcome a bittersweet moment. Though the film doesn’t necessarily offer much in terms of shock value or plot twists, what it does do it perfectly execute a story that builds the tension scene by scene, giving the audience no choice but to be fully invested by the finish line.
As brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, Chris Pine and Ben Foster give solid if not slightly familiar performances. Though neither actor takes many risks, Pine does well as the level headed, better intentioned brother whilst Ben Foster is allowed to show less restraint as the classic ex-con, unhinged, unpredictable older brother with a bag of weapons and a temperamental personality. As joint protagonists the duo do enough to keep the audience invested in their Thelma and Louise-esque jaunt across the South. The more nuanced partnership takes place on the other side of the law with Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as two Texas Rangers who, despite their differences, share an authentic bond that makes them an instantly likeable double act. Bridges is still oozing star quality in to his old age, and though his character’s ‘banter’ with regards to his partner’s ethnicity sometimes goes on a line too long for me, his performance is probably the most endearing in the film.
Overall, Hell Or High Water is a cinematic pleasure for anybody who doesn’t mind a slow build. If Mad Max: Fury Road signifies the kind of level that you need your pace and action to be at, then this won’t be for you. It will be for you, however, if films like A Most Violent Year or even The Revenant did enough to keep you engaged throughout. A film with little fanfare and hype that left me with something to think about, something which I am sure Bridget Jones’s Baby would not have done.