Is the Western dead?
This question is floated around a lot these days. We don't see too many traditional westerns anymore. The days of the gunslinger, the cowboy, and the damsel in distress are over at the movie theater. Instead, we have men in capes wearing bat costumes and robot suits, using impenetrable shields and mighty hammers to crush their enemies. We will never see a return to the time period where Clint Eastwood and John Wayne ruled the box office and the collective imagination of the country. But I would never say that the western genre is dead. It's simply evolving. Look at the Coens' No Country for Old Men, Tarantino's Django Unchained, and even Antoine Fuqua's upcoming The Magnificent Seven. Filmmakers are utilizing the genre in new ways, which is exactly what director David Mackenzie does with Hell or High Water, his grand slam of a neo-western, a potent, thrilling, and altogether haunting tale of family, violence, and redemption.
So much for a bad year at the movies. Hell or High Water is a crackerjack combination of the barren landscapes of No Country for Old Men, the remorseful charm of Fargo (the TV series, that is), the gripping tension of Sicario, and the lonely desolation of Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Simply put, it's one of the best movies of the year so far. It's a movie that feels so pure, so full of vivacious energy and anger. Its topical themes could be discussed for days (it's a good companion piece to films like The Big Short and Money Monster), but for me, the reason Hell or High Water works so well lies in its execution. With the help of Taylor Sheridan's dynamite screenplay and a trio of phenomenal performances, director David Mackenzie has crafted something heartbreaking, sad, and unforgettable, a slice of neo-Western brilliance that doubles as a cinematic masterpiece.
Hell or High Water follows the story of two Texan brothers- Tanner (Ben Foster), a brash, outgoing ex-convict, and Toby (Chris Pine), a soft-spoken man with a broken family history. As the film opens, we learn that the brothers are carrying out a series of robberies, targeting specific banks. Why? Well, the bank was trying to screw their deceased mother out of their family home, and if they don't raise the money by a certain date, they'll be out of luck. So why not kill two birds with one stone- get the money and take revenge on the banks at the same time. But while things start off easy enough, the brothers will soon have Texas Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), on their tale. Marcus is close to retirement, but with the brothers quickly making their way across Texas, he knows that he has one more job left in him. The resulting cops-and-robbers standoff will test the willpower and the morals of everyone involved.
I could have watched 10 hours of Hell or High Water. Some movies work well within the confines of their own runtime, but with this film, I wanted to see this world explored even deeper and I didn't want to leave. While it shares more stylistic blood with No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water reminded me most of Fargo, the hit FX miniseries. You can see all of the narrative strands in this film being expanded on further, but the amazing execution begs the question- if you can accomplish the same effect in 2 hours as you could in 10 hours, what's the point of going further? Hell or High Water may be only 102 minutes long, but when the end credits rolled, I felt like I had been wrapped up in this unforgettable story for hours. The impact of this film is simply astounding. It's sharp, funny, and sad, often at the same time. Like many films recently, it's about the death of a core part of America, and the desecration of the midwest. It's about two brothers with deep loyalty, a fiery, bullet-riddled revenge tale that asks some provocative moral questions. But unlike most tales of morality, this one never feels the need to push you to one side or the other. It simply presents the argument, and lets the audience decide for themselves. It all builds to a harrowing point that will leave you shaken.
David Mackenzie's direction and Taylor Sheridan's script are the keys here. In the hands of another pair of filmmakers, Hell or High Water would have been just another cops-and-robbers tale, and we all know that we see too many of those things every year. Mackenzie, a British director best known for Jack O'Connell's Starred Up, proves himself to be an incredible talent, a filmmaker with a keen eye for shot composition and intensity. Mackenzie's camera pans up and down the desolate Texan landscape, soaking in every ounce of the empty, sun-baked towns and the long roads leading nowhere. There's a phenomenal sense of atmosphere to Hell or High Water, and all of that is due to the man behind the camera. Mackenzie is as good with a blisteringly intense action scene as he is with a simple establishing shot or a brief moment of dialogue, and for that reason, I think he's definitely a filmmaker to watch.
On the other hand, Sheridan is quickly proving to be one of Hollywood's most talented screenwriters. After spending years working on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, Sheridan tried his hand at a screenplay last year with Sicario, and we all know how that turned out. The film (directed by Denis Villeneuve) was fierce, relentlessly intense, and brutal, a movie that grips you and never lets you go. But if it was there was one negative I could say about Sheridan's screenplay for that film, it was that the characters weren't particularly developed or compelling. Hell or High Water proves that Sheridan is a man of many talents, as he brings that same white-knuckle intensity and injects it into a fascinating character study. This film features some of the best characters of the year, and there are plenty of terrific moments that complement the punishing action scenes. Sheridan is a household name now, and he's here to stay.
Mackenzie and Sheridan's work on this film is exceptional, but they have help from three of the better performances of the year. Many are hailing his performance here as a revelation, but I feel like I've always known that Chris Pine was an outstanding, dynamic actor. He's been a stellar Captain Kirk, and even his performance in a mediocre movie like The Finest Hours proved he has great range. Hell or High Water might be his best performance yet, a nuanced, subtle turn. Toby is the emotional center of the movie, and Pine backs that up with a sweet, quiet reserve. Toby isn't a bank robber by nature, and you can tell that in every scene. Ben Foster is brilliant here as well as Tanner, emerging as the film's wild card. You never really know what Tanner is going to do, and yet, Foster has a cocky charm that works. And finally, Jeff Bridges is on his game here, proving once again why he's so good. Yes, he's playing another variation of Rooster Cogburn, but there's something to his performance- a sadness, a low-key thoughtfulness that contrasts the loud, kinda mean-spirited nature of his character. He's magnetic, and I wouldn't be surprised if he found his way into the awards conversation.
On top of all of that, Hell or High Water is also a feast for the eyes and ears. The score by alt-rock icon Nick Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis is really special, a mournful, tragic sound that gives the film an almost Shakespearean quality (it has echoes of the score for season 1 of Fargo, to make one more comparison). The music doesn't underplay the intensity of the action scenes or the drama- instead, it highlights the desperation, the longing for a better life. It's a perfect fit for the story that Mackenzie and Sheridan are telling. And finally, the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is unbelievably good, soaked in the bright yellows and oranges of the desert landscape. Nuttgens' camerawork manages to capture both the dirty grime and the simplicity of the Texas setting, and it's a big reason why Hell or High Water is so engrossing.
This film is a knockout, plain and simple. It's one of those films that came out of nowhere to shock everybody, and even though it is an August release, I think we'll be hearing about this one for a while. It's building up a head of steam at the box office, and with some of the highest critical notices of the year, Hell or High Water could make it all the way to the Dolby Theatre. And deservedly so. It's a film to return to over and over, a lean, mean, and tragic crime drama with three phenomenal performances at its core. Like Sing Street and The Nice Guys and some of the other great films this year, it's the kind of mid-budget release that we don't see much of anymore, and I'm ecstatic that this is reaching a wide audience. Hollywood needs more original, thrilling work like Hell or High Water. It's an incredibly effective film that does so much with so little, and in a year where people are arguing for the death of cinema, a small drama with as much punch and impact as this one is incredibly important. It's one of the best films of the year, and a film that proves that the western is very, very far from death.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9.6/10)
Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films