By Preston Wilder
The way people talk is essential to Hell or High Water. “If you see anyone lookin’ a little sideways, give me a call,” drawls Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, seeking information on some bank robbers. “Sideways don’t wanna meet me,” replies a Stetson-wearing passerby, perusing Hamilton’s card. “Find itself on the wrong end of a short rope”. (Hamilton’s comeback is also noteworthy: “Well, that would simplify things for everyone but you.”) It’s not always caustic one-liners, sometimes it’s just a choice of words or a turn of phrase: someone is admonished to “drive like a schoolteacher” (i.e. carefully), while an old man complains he’s been living on “an inmate’s diet”. Then again, sometimes it is caustic one-liners. Were they white or black? asks the Ranger, still on the trail of those robbers; “Their skin, or their souls?” replies the bank teller. It makes you wonder how police-work ever gets done in West Texas, with everyone making colourful retorts.
Do people really talk like that? Maybe. The Oscar-nominated script is by Taylor Sheridan, a former TV actor (best-known from Sons of Anarchy) who grew up in Texas and now lives in Wyoming, so presumably he’s heard some picturesque wit and wisdom over the years. But in fact it hardly matters if the film is ‘realistic’. It may be set in an actual place, and take inspiration from actual events – notably the wave of bank foreclosures that swept across the US heartland in the late 00s – but its small-town Texas is as much a fantasy land as Middle-Earth, a lean, snappy, self-conscious movie West, awash in guns and beer, where all the men can handle themselves and treat their feelings like a hot potato. At one point – and one point only – the two brothers at the heart of the story admit that they love each other, awkwardly averting their eyes as they say it, and are so embarrassed they instantly revert to type: “Go f*** yourself!” “Go f*** yourself!”
The brothers are named Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) – and, like Bonnie and Clyde, they rob banks. Much like Bonnie and Clyde, their crimes pale beside those committed by the banks – though, unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they have a plan, hoping they can steal enough to prevent the foreclosure of their family home before the law catches up with them. Then again, the plan is probably doomed. “The days of robbin’ banks and tryin’ to live to spend the money – they’re long gone,” notes a philosophical restaurant patron, making a point that runs through the movie: a point about the West as a land of anachronisms barely hanging on in the 21st century, and a point about outlaw defiance as a kind of romantic throwback. “We’re like the Comanches!” whoops volatile ex-convict Tanner, harking back to the land’s lawless past. That motif recurs in Hamilton’s partner Alberto, who’s half-Native American, then becomes explicit when Tanner meets an actual Comanche, a tough-looking hombre at the poker table. “Do you know what ‘Comanche’ means? It means enemies forever,” snarls this character, spoiling for a fight. “Enemies with who?” “Everyone.” “Then you know what that makes me?” asks Tanner. “An enemy.” “No… It makes me a Comanche.”
It’s tempting to just quote chunks of the film’s (very quotable) dialogue – though that would mean neglecting its tight construction and outstanding performances across the board, plus the dramatic momentum engineered by Scottish director David Mackenzie. A final dedication reveals that Mackenzie lost both his parents in 2015 – and Hell or High Water, despite its genre trappings, carries some of that sense of loss, a free-floating mournfulness. Hamilton is close to retirement, facing a lonely future, his keenest pleasure in life being the – startlingly racist – banter he shares with Alberto (the script smartly recognises how affection can be channelled through insults and apparent offensiveness). The brothers have been battered their whole lives, from abusive childhood onwards, and they know it’s unlikely to get better. “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” reads graffiti on a wall in the opening shot – and the film has that mood of noble defeatism, the simultaneous pride and resentment implied in the phrase ‘people like us’.
My only quibble is that Hell or High Water (like Sicario, the previous film scripted by Sheridan) is a bit too macho. A fight at a filling station seems designed for no other purpose than to illustrate that Toby too – though seemingly gentler than his brother – can be tough when he wants to be. Then there’s the ending, which seems just a bit one-dimensional; I’d have preferred a more poetic denouement, maybe a shift in perspective – think of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, with its unexpectedly tender final scene – but instead there’s more veiled belligerence and muted emotion. Still, this is easily the best film at the multiplex right now, even though it’s barely opening (just a single show per night; it wouldn’t be here at all, if it weren’t for the Oscars). By all means, watch it. And of course listen to it.
DIRECTED BY David Mackenzie
STARRING Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
US 2016 102 mins