One of the reasons that film makers enjoy making genre films is that it allows them to use the pre-existing structure as a means of commenting surreptitiously on the present. Instead of asking the audience to sit through a social issues film with all that that implies, they get to see a western or a sci-fi film. And the themes that the film makers are really interested in are slipped in via the back door.
Hell and High Water is the ninth film directed by Scottish film maker David Mackenzie and is effectively a B movie western set in modern day Texas. A couple of brothers embark on a spate of low-end bank robberies and are pursued by the grizzled sheriff and his weary sidekick.
The brothers are played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, with the former as the sensible, strong but silent one who calls in desperation on the help of his loose cannon of a brother, who’s just got out of gaol, to help him with the plan that he’s hatched.
Whilst Jeff Bridges, as the sheriff, gives us a gleefully prickly curmudgeon, who particularly enjoys the racial points he scores at the expense of his long-suffering sidekick, the stoic Gil Birmingham.
What elevates the film, at least for the first hour or so, is the script. Written by Taylor Sheridan, it’s based on an original story by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and their haunting score is the first thing that gives the film an added sheen.
Then there’s the fact that the backdrop against which the robberies take place gives the film a decidedly murky moral hue. Because the brothers are only robbing the branches of the bank that has used the financial crash of 2008 to force them out of their family home – a crash of course that was caused by the banks in the first place
And most of all, the script produces a series of deft one liners that are delivered with the kind of insouciance perfectly in keeping with the very Texan feel of the film.
Inevitably, once things turn violent the film has to take sides, and that moral ambivalence is sacrificed. But for the first hour or so, it’s all impressively dark and surprisingly nuanced. And even after that, the performances are so strong that you find yourself happily going along for the ride. It’s the sort of film that Sam Fuller or Fritz Lang used to produce when the studio that had hired them weren’t really paying attention. A classic B movie then, but a classic all the same. You can see the trailer for Hell or High Water here. And there’s a moody video for the Cave Ellis track Comancheria here.
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