American philosopher Robert pippin wrote that the Western, perhaps the carte de visite of American cinema, reflects the founding of modern bourgeois society and the transition from lawlessness, akin to classical mythology with a focus on the political. David Mackenzie’s superb neo Western Hell or High Water presents an inverted interpretation of this outlook, showing a forgotten, run-down slice of the new West suffering from a post-recession crisis of confidence and identity as good men take desperate measures, and ostensibly law-abiding citizens turn to armed robbery and criminality.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are hitting banks in rural Texas in order to pony up enough cash to pay the mortgage on their dead mother’s house. In a pleasing and cynical middle finger to the money lenders who have contributed to the decline of this slice of small town America, the brothers will pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. Hot on their tails is cranky Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges), with one eye on retirement, accompanied by his part-Comanche, part-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Taylor Sheriden’s script plonks us squarely in a vision of America beholden to money men and full of social disparity. The shops are closed, there is no employment and Pine’s desperate bandit complains that he’s found himself out of work and staring down the barrel of repossession. This is no romanticised depiction of the Old West, it’s a warts and all depiction of community on the brink inhabited with individuals who have been driven to the brink. It’s very much a meditation on the soul of America in perhaps a similar way that any classic Western represents something intrinsically “American”. You get the feeling that the genre could never be a product of another national cinema and this is true of Hell or High Water.
Bridges is great as a curmudgeonly old-timer, ribbing his partner about his “Indian-ness”, harking back to his turn as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen’s adaptation of True Grit, possibly threatening to overdo it, but always keeping it on the right side of pantomime. A creaking, eerie score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds to an atmosphere that is by turns funereal and enthralling.
Mackenzie’s neo Western is cynical and dry, but also wonderfully energetic cutting and current.
[rating=4] | Chris Banks
Crime, Drama | UK, 2016 | 15 | StudioCanal | 9th September 2016 (UK) | Dir.David McKenzie | Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey,