Sometimes all it takes is the opening scene to fully dig into a movie. When the camera, rotating around its own axis, focuses on a worn-off Ford just to jump to two brothers robbing a bank, whilst the background is built with climactic score by Nick Cave – David Mackenzie already had me in his pocket. And that was only the beginning of undoubtedly one of the very best films of 2016.
Two brothers – Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) – are onto a series of temerarious bank robberies, at first glance being an act of their desperation to keep the family’s ranch. They are followed by two peculiar rangers – sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his Indian-origin partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Hell or High Water is bursting with soul-stirring inspirations – even though the Scottish director has set his story in the modern times, not only did he manage to pay a tribute to the western classics of Sergio Leone, but at the same time touched some more up-to-date, artsy variations in the genre. Therefore, there is a vibe of films like The Rover by David Michod, No Country For Old Men by the Coen Brothers, La Isla Minima by Alberto Rodriguez, but also heist movies like Bonnie & Clyde or even Heat. However, Mackenzie doesn’t apply “copy & paste” logic – by paying his tributes, he discovers his own way to keep the audience entertained.
He does that due to several reasons. First of all, Hell or High Water is an incredibly entertaining script by Taylor Sheridan, the author of last year’s revelation Sicario. Dry-out, cold atmosphere of scorching-hot plains of Texas, is matched with humorous couple of the rangers, which – as a whole – creates a contrast against the stifling and painful story that is told. The vigilante brothers are sketched as heroic criminals, with Mackenzie and Sheridan meticulously painting their motives and reasons. As a consequence, the slowly-revealed truth about their heist scheme takes a form of a Don Quichote-sque war, a romantic yet forlorn struggle against the depraved system. And it’s hard not to stand right by their side.
Fast-flowing action and witty script are fundamental for Mackenzie, but the true strength of his film lies in phenomenal acting and score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Chris Pine as the worn-out, raised in poverty and overwhelmed by his problems father and a divorced husband, is on point in his career-defining role – observing the little details, the gestures and his full-of-pain eyes is a sweet treat to be praised. Equally convincing is Ben Foster – the noisier, more rampant, he reminisces a bit of a modern Billy Kid. Even the supporting and background appearances are solid, which accounts for why Hell or High Water strikes as such a tremendous job.
Finally, there wouldn’t be so much of the dense, atmospheiric storytelling if not for the dark soundtrack by Cave & Ellis. Vibrant, overtuned guitars are paired up with catchy piano melodies and moaning of the fiddles, keeping the character of stuff like T-Bone Burnett’s work in the first season of True Detective. The compositions of the folk & rock duo are sometimes entwined with country classics, like Townes van Zandt or Waylon Jennings. All of that perfectly matches the shots of the desolate plains of Texas.
Summing up, Hell or High Water is a must-see this year. Mackenzie, by paying his tributes, singed up himself to be considered among the most talented and promising modern filmmakers. And I dare to say that we might hear about Hell or High Water in some time – it would be a great misunderstanding if this beauty didn’t get into the Oscar race.
What’s cool: Chris Pine’s superb performance, great story, soundtrack by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, artistic cinematography.
What’s not: Only drawback is Jeff Bridges playing Jeff Bridges – again…
UMP Grade: 44/50