REVIEW: Old West meets new in the electric ‘Hell or High Water’

Image: CBS Films

Image: CBS Films

Hell or High Water shoots out of the gate and doesn’t ease up until the credits roll. In a single take, we follow a bank teller as she arrives for work, pulls into the empty parking lot, and fishes for her keys while two gunmen in ski masks lurk at the edge of the frame. There’s an uneasy steadiness to the whole sequence, as if her routine isn’t the only plan about to go off the rails.

This is West Texas, where even a nice old lady can burst into an ornery ball of grit at a moment’s notice. When the robbers pounce, she’s thrown less by the gun in her face than their pluck. (“You’re robbin’ the bank?”) And she’s right; these days, that sort of thing takes a lot of brains. Or maybe the opposite. Either way, it’s not going to be easy. And, within seconds, these guys start looking less like ace thieves than Elmore Leonard-style boneheads.

But back at their hideout, there’s a sedan-size grave ready for their junky getaway car. After the burial, they jump into another parked behind the barn. What are these guys up to?

The movie doesn’t tip its hand, preferring to bounce off their contrasting personalities instead. Information is carefully parceled out—they’re brothers, one just did a stretch in prison while the other took care of their dying mother—but, for the most part, the movie is as laconic as the contemporary cowboys that populate it. It only speaks when it has something to say.

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote last year’s Sicario. That was a cops-and-robbers take on the drug war that bristled with action-movie fireworks. It was almost too explosively entertaining to take seriously; its indictment of American geopolitical machinations was its least cleverly calibrated aspect.

With its genre-infused take on headline-ripped issues, Hell or High Water is so reminiscent of its predecessor that it’s hard to judge on its own terms. But that’s not quite fair. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) invests the whole thing with his own brand of generational conflict; he’s fixated more on family dynamics rather than visual ones. And while his movies are emotionally kinetic, they have an aggressive, muscular momentum that never feels dim or macho. The effect is something like a psychological chase movie; rather than a racing against a clock, his characters face off against their stunted interior growth, doing their best to square their overwhelming feelings with their limited capacity to express themselves. They’re products of an atavistic patriarchy that stretches back generations.

While the British Mackenzie is an unlikely paring for the distinctly Texan Sheridan, they share a sense of the past creeping into the present. Sicario‘s Denis Villeneuve may be a more gifted stylist—nothing here comes close to that movie’s boarder-chase set piece—but Mackenzie’s movie is set in a different key; it’s pulpier, quicker, more colorful. It also sports its genre influences more spiritedly. This is a cowboys and Indians flick set at the end of an era.

That was a common theme during the Western’s heyday, especially during the ‘70s revisionist string that emphasized meta-demythologizing of Hollywood itself. Those movies were set just as technology and modernity birthed American imperialism. At the turn of the next century, not much has changed. People work hard without much to show for it. They unwind by gambling and sleeping with prostitutes. Firearms are ubiquitous. A few still get around on horseback.

But the changes are telling: now the gambling occurs in neon casinos, the guns are military-grade, and a sleepy bank’s security system might as well belong to Fort Knox. In other words, the imperialism that birthed these towns and subjugated its native population has ossified into a kind of permanent occupation. In 2016, robbing banks is an anachronism.

The same goes for rugged individualism. Mackenzie’s West Texas is a wasteland of barely populated ghost towns and industrial decay pock-marked with foreclosure notices and debt-relief billboards—The Road Warrior by way of The Big Short. The despair here is as big as the sky and the gloom as deep as the horizon, but it’s sturdy enough to have a sense of humor too. If Sicario’s hint of insurrectionist indignation was lost in the din of gunfire and stylistic élan, Hell or High Water—otherwise a model of assiduous precision—loses momentum whenever its populist resolve interrupts the joyride.

But that’s a minor complaint. With a singular tone that alternates between high-octane fatalism, white-knuckle intensity, and zippy entertainment, Hell or High Water is a dusty knockout and whip-smart entertainment. It’s the kind of thing that never goes out of style.

Hell or High Water. Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges. Opens in Kansas City August 19, 2016.

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