There are moments during David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water when you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a Coen Brothers movie.
Whilst on one level it’s a serious tale of the evening of scores, of revenge and of payback (literally), it’s also what you might refer to as a darkly humorous small town yarn.
Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively), rob banks. More specifically, they rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank. There are no major cash hauls, just quick ‘in and out’ smash-and-grab hits for those loose, unmarked dollar bill stashes in the bank cashiers’ draws. Whilst snatching a few thousand here and there may be better than nothing, it hardly seems worth the hassle, all things considered.
It soon transpires though that rather than simply being a pair of desperado chancers, there is in fact method to their small-scale madness.
It turns out that the Texas Midland Bank has had a sizeable loan secured against the family ranch which has, for some time now, crippled the boys’ family with debt – the stress from which is something that Toby directly attributes to the recent death of his dear mother.
Toby, being an honourable sort without so much as a blemish to his good name, believes in doing the right thing. He wants to repay the bank. He just wants to do it on his terms – by using the bank’s own money.
Tanner, on the other hand, is something of a career criminal. In and out of jail, he’s missed large parts of his brother’s life, and whilst not feeling the same levels of resentment as his brother, feels duty bound to aid him in his venture. Tanner’s ‘fuck you’ attitude to the system is of particular benefit under these circumstances. More than anything though , one senses that Tanner just enjoys his self-styled role as a hot-headed ‘loose cannon’.
Not so ‘hot’ on their trail, (this is small town Texas, after all), are veteran sherif, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who is soon to take over from Marcus as the town’s sherif.
Hamilton’s slow-burn approach to tracking down these errant rogues is of great frustration to Alberto, but he has a plan, and little by little, the net closes in.
When one breaks it down, there’s really not too much to Hell or High Water. It’s a simple tale of simple folk in small town America, but the film’s simplicity is its greatest asset.
Granted, a film whose central theme is one based around a sequence of bank robberies, needs to have some element of action about it, but essentially this is more a film about characters, and David Mackenzie’s direction is key to their full and rounded development.
The film’s serious overtones are punctuated frequently by exchanges of bone-dry amusing dialogue, and a handful of truly comical characters thrown in, providing a small-town quirkiness to proceedings. Not that they’re needed in the sense of breaking up any sort of monotony or puncturing any elements of directorial self-importance as such, for the truth is that Hell or High Water is beautifully paced and rolls along ever so sweetly, remaining thoroughly engaging until its final, ‘blaze of glory’ conclusion.
Hell or High Water. A sort of timeless, twisted Robin Hood revival for our times, and a damn good one at that.