Thinking of the reimagined Westerns of today, it’s easy to be immediately drawn to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and quite rightly so. It’s an absolute behemoth of a film and brought a cinematic experience back to the genre. So, when watching Hell or High Water there are high expectations – wide pan shots of the hot landscape, rigid cowboys, smooth sheriffs and chaotic gun fights. Thankfully, it delivers.
Our protagonists are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, both of whom are polar opposites in personality and looks. Toby is played by Chris Pine, a far cry from intergalactic space battles, he’s traded lasers for a six-pack of Lone Star and a Camaro. The calculated one of the duo, Toby’s motives for a stint of rampant bank robberies are unclear at the start of the film.
Ben Foster plays Toby’s brother, the reckless live-wire that is Tanner. Foster’s most memorable cinematic moment to date was when he walked into a house party in Alpha Dog and Kung-Fu’d an entire pack of students. Fantastic. So, here he gives Tanner the required amount of volatility and spontaneity to make Hell or High Water come to life.
Hot in pursuit of the brothers is the soon-to-be retiring Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and long-term partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who share the typical love-hate relationship – think of an OAP Texas version of Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett from Bad Boys. Both Marcus and Alberto are determined in their attempts to capture the Howard brothers. In the dialogue between the two there are regular racist remarks regarding Alberto’s Native American heritage which gets quite repetitive and downright strange as the film goes on.
What unravels throughout the film is the strength and basis of the relationship between the Howard brothers, their haphazard attempts to rob as many banks as possible and the veteran cop duo trying to outsmart the modern day cowboys. There are plenty of moments for laughs, action and drama!
As mentioned earlier, we get absorbing characters but the sub-plot of the film is the dreary Texan landscape. Regular conversations about the economy, land ownership and people’s rights are as relevant in 2016 as when the classic Westerns were set, in the years around the American civil war and the times when Native Americans owned vast plains that were eventually pillaged. This provides a reflective and thought provoking addition to Hell or High Water, and makes it clever.
A number of re-inventions from the Western genre can make for arduous viewing, but Hell or High Water gives the perfect blend of action, heroes and villains and storyline to make it an attractive watch.