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Hell or High Water

This modern-day Western offers fantastic performances and some timely social commentary.
By Sarah Ward
November 02, 2016
By Sarah Ward
November 02, 2016

Switch its modern-day Texas setting for the American frontier of several centuries ago, and its noble thieving heroes for gunslingers roaming the range, and there's no mistaking it: Hell or High Water is a western through and through. These days, every second film or thereabouts is deemed a contemporary take on the genre, from Mad Max: Fury Road to The Dressmaker. Director David Mackenzie doesn't take on the Old West lightly, however, and his sun-scorched drama proves to be the genuine article.

Bullets fly, law and order collides, and the distinctively dusty US landscape looms large over morally murky exploits. It all harks back to times (and films) gone by, while also proving ever-so-relevant to today. Sons of Anarchy actor turned Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan cleverly steeps every recognisable western element in timely commentary on our have-versus-have not society. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) fall into the latter category — but as the movie's title intimates, they're determined to make a change.

Their primary opponent: the banking system. Specifically, a local financial establishment that happily gave their mother a reverse mortgage on the family farm, and now wants to swoop in and take it all away. So the siblings react Robin Hood-style, holding up the bank's various branches to raise the funds needed to retain control of the property. Of course, rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are soon on the brothers' trail, one trying to hold on to the past by staving off retirement, the other grinning and bearing his colleague's old-school ways.

In a film built dirt-up from the tiniest of details — a parade of sepia-tinted small towns here, a slow drawl masking unspoken pain there — paying close attention to the furrowed brows of Pine and Bridges is highly recommended. Like the film they inhabit, their characters are broken men moulded from familiar pieces. And yet the actors still manage to convey depths that trump the feeling that you've seen it all before. Watching them weather their respective battles — against systems trying to keep them in their places, against their internal demons, and against each other — is quietly revelatory. Though tasked with the least nuanced role of the three main players, Foster also ensures his ex-con character is more than simply a unhinged comic foil to his morally conflicted brother.

To put it simply, it's stellar work from most involved. That applies to Mackenzie as well, who provides not only an evocative sense of the genre he's happily playing with, but balances Hell or High Water's solemn tone with his lightness of touch. The journeyman filmmaker continues to serve up new highlights such as his previous prison effort Starred Up, and now this. He's ably assisted by the fine work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, as well as by a soulful score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

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