Released in September 2016, Hell Or High Water has been nominated for four awards at this year’s Oscars, including ‘Best film’ and ‘Best original screenplay’. And it really isn’t difficult to understand why.
As Scottish director David Mackenzie’s first feature since the brutal prison drama Starred Up, this arrived carrying the burden of great expectation. Thankfully, it does not disappoint. Instead it is both a modern western to rival the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men and also a gripping heist thriller with its crosshairs fixed on Michael Mann’s classic Heat.
Set amidst the soaring temperatures of west Texas, two brothers – Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) – embark on robbing a series of local bank branches to save their recently deceased mother’s oil-rich land from being seized by the very bank from which they’re stealing.
Hot on their heels is retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Bridges is typically brilliant as the weary yet wily cop, hence the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ Oscar nomination for his performance.
Pine and Foster are excellent as the criminal siblings too. Pine’s Toby is a divorcee with no love left from his ex-wife and their two boys, for whom he will still stop at nothing to save the family home as their inheritance. He is the softer, kinder brother to Foster’s brash, ex-convict Tanner. Foster gives the eldest of the two such a volatile energy that you feel his every interaction with anyone other than his ‘baby brother’ could result in bloodshed.
The interplay between the two characters is laced with a perfect blend of sweetness, gentle ribbing, resentment and bitter fury towards one another to portray an entirely convincing brotherly love. That gets us on board with their plan to save their mother’s ranch, even if it is by violent means.
From that we know they are not the villains in this film; they are the anti-heroes; although the waters are muddied as lives are lost when the cat and mouse game with the police reaches its inevitable crescendo. Yet, the real enemy remains as the faceless corporate ineptitude and greed that led to the global financial crisis, which is the driver behind the brothers’ crime-spree.
Even the police know the real criminals are wearing suits and ties. When Marcus is teasing Alberto about his Comanche heritage, his partner points out that Marcus’s ancestors stole the land around them from his people 150 years ago, and now it is being stolen from the thieves by the banks.
Spanning the western and heist movie genres could easily have made this a clichéd shell of a film – Bridges’ retiring cop makes you raise an eyebrow for starters. But, instead, the subtle political message running through Hell Or High Water makes it a smart, fresh take on two classic styles, sewn together seamlessly.