Saucy old-lady and scene-stealer Margaret Bowen makes the menu options at T-Bone’s diner pretty dang clear to Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges (just. one. case. from. retirement) and Gil Birmingham (long time sufferer of Bridges’ playfully racist jokes and sagely gristle). Everyone gets a T-bone steak and a potato, and you either don’t want the corn or you don’t want the green beans. And you gotta ask yourself throughout the film…what don’t the characters want? Bridges doesn’t want to go down in a blaze of glory…right? The bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine – the good one, and Ben Foster – the bad one) don’t want to hurt anybody…right? Nobody in West Texas wants to use their concealed gun, it’s just for protection…right? Well, maybe wrong…and when everybody has hurt feelings, a trigger finger and is armed, there’s bound to be blood…eventually.
The “innocent” bystander women get some of the best lines in Taylor Sheridan’s sharp screenplay. Character actress favorite Dale Dickey, upon being asked if the bank robbers were black or white, pointedly responds, “You mean their skin color or their souls?” Another sassy waitress (Katy Mixon) who took to flirtin’ with one of our dastardly handsome brothers while the other robbed the bank across the street pitches a fit when the Rangers try to take her $200 tip as evidence. “That’ll pay half my mortgage!” Thank you very much!
And it’s those mortgages that are the root of the evils in David Mackenzie’s Neo-Western Hell or High Water. In fact, I would argue that the Texas Midlands Bank makes one of the greatest recent on-screen villains. It’s been screwing poor people for generations, and the robbers and the bystanders (all too eager to play and be not so innocent) alike are getting a big kick out of sticking it to them. There’s also a lot of heart in the story, as the motives of (at least one of) the brothers are noble and forged in wanting some kind of peace and redemption through what they leave behind. And hell, that bank had it coming!
Along the way the British director Mackenzie takes a keen outsider’s eye to this slice of contemporary Americana (blistered with timeless archetypes). It’s possibly the best foreign helmed American film since…dare I say it…Paris, Texas? Like that film, this one also has an unforgettable soundtrack, this time courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (doing their best work since The Proposition). There are great tunes…wall to wall…highlighting this piece, while the cinematography takes a slow burn approach to sear the story, the characters, and the atmosphere, into the viewer.
Although wholly “of the moment” with its mortgage based thievery…Hell or High Water has the feel of a great character-driven film from the 1970’s. Only time will tell if it will hold up like classics from that era…but I reckon it’s got a fighting chance as long as everyone is still packing heat.
Written by David H. Schleicher