Last year, sometime character actor and first-time screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, wowed audiences with Sicario, the border-cum-drug-war thriller helmed by ultra-stylist Denis Villeneuve, with not insubstantial help from director of photography, Roger Deakins. Now he's teamed up with British director, David Mackenzie (Starred Up) to deliver another tale of the deep South, this time focused on West Texas. He's proving himself to be a writer with an excellent ear for regional dialogue, vivid characters and a healthy appetite for impactful violence. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Hell or High Water centers on two brothers who are on their way to middle age. The elder, recently released ex-con, Tanner (Ben Foster), says he's been alive for "39 years and in jail for 10," so you get the sort of state he might be in mentally. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two teenaged boys from whom he is estranged, but is also intent on securing his family's farm for them as one of the few positive aspects of his legacy. He has a conversation with his older son at one point in which he instructs him not to be like his father and that he is going to learn some things about him soon, all of which are true.
Those things include bank robbery, or at least that is what the initial plan is. But this is a crime story set in West Texas, so if you've seen No Country for Old Men, you can understandably get the sense that victimless robberies aren't going to be the only thing going on in this movie. Unlike that Coen brothers film, however, Sheridan injects a surprising amount of levity--even jokes, at times--into the script. Much of it is borne out through the performances, which could have been humorless and dour in the hands of a lesser director, or a lesser cast.
Take, for example, the wonderfully easygoing banter between the pair of Texas Rangers who are trailing the bankrobbing brothers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. On the surface, Bridges is providing a startlingly similar performance to his own turn in the Coens' True Grit, except in this case, he is no misanthrope. You can tell the gruff affection he has for his partner, whom he constantly teases for his mixed ethnicity of Mexican-American Indian in the innocuous way that can happen only between two very close friends. Birmingham is equally Bridges' match in these scenes, telling everything you need to know through his deadpan demeanor and the slightest flicker of a smile.
There's an equally weighty sense of history between the brothers, whose relationship is the heart of the film. Tanner is a loose cannon in that way we have come to love and expect from Foster ever since 3:10 to Yuma almost ten years ago, but Pine brings a sense of internal life and thoughtfulness to his role that I have yet to see over the course of his career. He is channeling vulnerability and strength in the way Tom Hardy has nearly cornered the market on. There is nevertheless a sense of intelligence to Toby, despite his taciturn demeanor, particularly alongside the bombast of his brother. Despite their own interpersonal tensions (Toby stuck by their withholding, dying mother until the end, while Tanner was in prison), Mackenzie includes just enough moments of genuine brotherly affection that complement the film's otherwise hyper-masculine ethos.
Mackenzie reminds me of the younger yet similarly talented Ryan Coogler, who makes films with a distinct, subtle and persistent sense of command. Look at the very first shot of the film, reminiscent of the Steven Spielberg "one-er," in which we get a glimpse of a desolate, sun-bleached parking lot in the middle of a weather-beaten Texas town, all white concrete and chintzy advertisements. The camera pans in almost 360 degrees before a bank clerk (played by the ever-welcome Dale Dickey) strides into the frame, puffing on a cigarette, clearly on her way into work but not in a particularly happy mood. She barely opens the front door before we (and she) are startled to death by the sudden onset of two masked men with handguns, one of whom roughly shunts her into the building, shouting at her. Mackenzie's camera glides into the building and we finally cut for the first time.
This is the sort of economical yet bravura filmmaking that I am always ecstatic to see in the theater, especially when it comes from seemingly out of nowhere, as it does with Hell or High Water. The opening scene establishes a pervading sense of tension that never fails to let up, even during scenes that may exist only to establish a sense of place and character (a particular favorite includes a no-shit-taking veteran waitress who cares only what her customers don't want on the menu). Among the army of producers is Peter Berg, a mostly journeyman filmmaker who nevertheless created Friday Night Lights, both the film and TV show, which capture West Texas like few other works of fiction do. We also have the involvement of veteran musician and composer, Nick Cave, whose understated compositions reflect Toby's state of mind.
It is this combination of terrific artists that make films like Hell or High Water the great successes they are. The movie may never graduate to High Art--it is too firmly rooted in the tropes of the Western genre quite to reach those heights--but it is among the best crafted films I have seen this year.