Film Review: Hell or High Water

Poverty Is The Mother Of Invention

All too often we dutifully lemmingly, even groundhog day like line up to buy the snake oil silver screen liniment that’s been pitched to us with beautiful exciting words, pictures and sounds. All skilfully presented by the various marketing strategies screaming their fare at us with promises of an entertainment oasis. Even to the extent that they show the entire movie in the trailer, so actually there’s no need to see the film. And of course it’s generally the hollow pronouncements of studio charlatan rustlers encouraging us to swallow psuedo-tainment, whose side effects might not make our limbs fall off, but it’s certainly fattening up our brains for a financial cull down the local cineplex abattoir.

And then we have the likes of David Mackenzie (who directed the fantastic, vicious and brutal ‘Starred Up’, 2013) and Taylor Sheridan (he wrote the incredibly brilliant ‘Sicario’, 2015) and in one quick gun draw make you forget about all the dross, restoring you faith in the story telling process, and that excellent, intelligent, beautiful work does exist, if you make it exist.

After reading about these two extremely talented individuals partnering up for ‘Hell Or High Water’ (2016) I was 100% on board for the pilgrimage. But when I read that Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges were saddling up and that the soundtrack was to be done by none other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, I started to believe in the Second Coming. And what a cinematic rapture it is.

Toby (Pine) and Tanner Howard (Foster) are two brothers who have never had it easy. Their lives have been as tough and unforgiving as the Texan landscape that surrounds them. Tanner is the older more chaotic brother, part coyote, part rattlesnake rapped in southern charm and raw frenzied temperament. Rather than a gentle guiding hand in his childhood, he had fists mould him. He’s also an Iraq Veteran tossed aside like a spent, bullet holed beer can. Toby at least managed to hold down a relationship long enough to start a family, but even that didn’t last. He also spent time looking after their dying mum whilst trying to maintain the family ranch, the only good thing their father ever did for them.


But the Texan lands lay barren with an economic blight. The carcasses of farms, petrol stations, shops and roadside diners lay rotting everywhere, the carrion from the repent slaughter by local banks, with the focus of relentless cancer, they will have their pound of flesh even if it kills the host.

The Howard ranch is behind on bank payments and is about to be repossessed. The livelihood of previous and future generations ended for a few thousand dollars. But the brothers have a plan born from necessity, zero options and panic… to rob banks.

The entire movie is seeped in a comforting old cowboy charm, southern drawl, intense heat, sweat and dust covering everything around you. Don’t be surprised if you see a dust brush drift down the cinema isle. The brothers may be raging into small towns with stolen cars and ineptitude on a spree to rob only the small unmarked bills (they aren’t doing this out of greed), but at least there’s an honesty to what they are doing, unlike the banks. They have the charisma and mutual love, respect that echoes Paul Newman and Robert Redford in ‘Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid’ (1969). Their plight and struggle is a familiar one, to the extent that even some of the locals they encounter actually support them. This is not survival of the fittest, this is about resilience.

Hot on the tale of these young bucks is the old guard in the form of Texan Ranger Marcus Hamiliton (Bridges) who is from the era of a misguided belief in justice, duty and honour, to pridefully complete this one final case as he is on the cusp of retirement. He has his long suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) trailing alongside him who he treats like a tracker due to his Native Indian origins. Duty may be the badge Hamilton wears, but it’s stained in alcoholism and potential racism.

It’s brilliantly intelligent, considered, lean fare. Beautifully shot and written with moments of genuine glorious character that could only be found in Texas. The banks are being robbed, but it’s some of the older characters peppered along the trail that virtually steal the show. It has one cowboy boot in the past and the other in the now, but it hitches it’s thumbs into it’s work jeans and line dances with a vigorous cheaky charm between them both.

All the cast is outstanding, absolutely giving some of their best performances ever, in the most subtle and southern reserve way possible, it’s a sheer delight to watch it unfold. An instant classic, a contemporary tale marinated in tradition that treats the viewer with discernment and respect. It may not be changing the cinema world, but I cannot wait to see this again, and for this entire crew to work together again on another project.


‘Hell Or High Water’ is out from Fri 9th September 2016.
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Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.