Hell or High Water (Preview)
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water.

Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn; directed by David Mackenzie; written by Taylor Sheridan; cinematography by Giles Nuttgens; edited by Jake Roberts; production design by Tom Duffield; costume design by Malgosia Turzanska; music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, and Katy Mixon. Color, 102 min. A CBS Films release.

In 1893, at an epochal meeting of the American Historical Association, held to coincide with the even more epochal Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the end of the frontier, the 1890 census having informed the nation that the dream had terminated in California. The bad news was softened by the good news that the frontier had already done its work, that Americans were not descendants of stiff-necked, psalm-singing Puritans but the offspring of hard-driving, gun-toting yippy-i-o ki yay-yelling cowboys. No matter what the Bureau of the Census said, the American West would live on as genetic imprinting—and generic entertainment—for a people with itchy feet and itchier trigger fingers. Good evidence of the cultural residue was within walking distance of Turner’s lectern, an attraction whose lure even the stuffy academics could not resist: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, American pop culture’s first great self-reflexive reality show, starring a genuine Indian killer with notches on his holster and scalps on his belt.

Ten years later, with The Great Train Robbery, a new medium took the reins and has been riding roughshod over the mytho-geographical territory ever since—celebrating, referencing, revising, deconstructing, parodying, retro-ing, noir-ing, Europeanizing, rebooting, science-fictionalizing, and cannibalizing the penny dreadful heritage. Scanning the landscape, it is hard to know how much is terra firma and how much a John Ford film. Periodically, the Hollywood Western is pronounced dead—or its tropes said to have been beamed into outer space—but it is too deeply ingrained in the reptile brain of American culture ever to reside for long in tombstone territory.

The latest exemplar, Hell or High Water, directed by a British dude named David Mackenzie (Starred Up, 2013) and written by actor-scribe Taylor Sheridan, is the best Western since—what?—Unforgiven (1992)? Open Range (2003)? The elemental elements are all there, burnt into the film’s hide like a brand, with no irony, no city slicker condescension: the feel of the land, the promise of the frontier, the regeneration through violence, the outlaws, the lawmen, the colorful varmints by the side of the road. With a twenty-first-century setting, nineteenth-century roots, and mid-twentieth-century cinematic chops, it is what used to be called an adult Western, a postwar offshoot that wrenched the genre from the kiddie matinees and B-movie oaters into the rarefied realm of the social problem film. In the carefully patrolled precincts of the Cold War, the all-American Western genre allowed Hollywood to make un-American critiques of race and capitalism that were too touchy for direct address.    

The Western backdrop settles over Hell or High Water like a deep Jungian memory rather than a game of intertextual connect the dots as per Woody Allen’s Café Society or Billy Ray’s Amazon series The Last Tycoon, where the smug cinephile harkens to the name dropping. Yes, there is mythic and visual callback aplenty—the cowpunchers herding cattle over a non-open range evoke Red River, which happens to be the title film in The Last Picture Show, which happens to be the site of Jeff Bridges’s breakout performance—but derivative and distancing is the last thing to which this depth-involvement film aspires. Like the best Westerns, Hell or High Water builds on rather than feeds off a tradition.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.

Mackenzie wastes no time, deftly staging a clumsy bank robbery before the credits unspool, which is not to say he is in a hurry: he lets his camera linger over golden hour-lit scenery and character byplay, leisurely pausing to set a spell at the porch to watch the boys jaw and joke. He favors classical, levelheaded horizontal framing, gentle pans, and plenty of sky in the widescreen vista. Only in the frenzied interior of a garish, slot machine-clanging Indian casino do things get jiggly with a moving camera shot.

The robberies here are not great but petty and amateurish. Even the bank tellers realize they’re dealing with greenhorns. “You boys are new at this, I’m guessin’,” says a Fordian frontier gal who—like most every other rawhided Texan in the film—does not quake at the sight of fearsome desperados waving handguns.

The partners in crime, riding away not on horseback but laying rubber on blacktop, are a sibling pair of (sort of) modern-day James Boys: Tanner (a wild-eyed, hell-bent for leather Ben Foster), the crazy criminal one, and Toby (a grunged-out Chris Pine), the smart, soulful, and ultimately more dangerous one.  

The boys are not greedy; they want to steal just enough money from a series of Texas Midlands branch banks to pay off the mortgage and tax bills on the farmland bequeathed to them by their mother. Oil has been discovered on the land, but if they can’t pony up the money, the bank takes possession of what should be the family fortune.

The boys, it turns out, are not amateurs in one sense: Toby has hatched an ingenious scheme to launder the untraceable small bills at Indian casinos, turning the chips around for cleaner cash. Robbing the bank to pay off the bank loan is delicious payback. “If that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is,” says a lawyer, happy to be in on the scheme.

By way of crosscut parallelism, a matched pair of lawmen are hot on the trail. As Sheriff Marcus Hamilton, a flinty Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement, and for whom this chase is the last roundup, Jeff Bridges walks onto screen in a cloud of cinematic and familial trail dust that stretches from High Noon (1952), another Western about a sheriff on the eve of retirement co-starring his father Lloyd Bridges as a craven deputy, to the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2013), where, as Rooster Cogburn, smothered by the shadow of the greatest of all Western film icons, the actor turned in a mannered and mumbly performance…

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Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc. 

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1