As the riotous ’60s bled into the scabby ’70s, a lot of people in this country found themselves asking what happened to the American Dream, and movies from that era reflected this swooning miasma. In film after great film, directors like Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, to name just a few, tapped into our growing sense that something had gone seriously, desperately wrong — that the great social experiment of democracy and prosperity had finally begun rotting from the inside out.
With his new film, director David Mackenzie taps brilliantly into that sense of melancholy engagement with the zeitgeist that characterized the best of Hollywood in the ’70s, and in so doing he’s made what is easily one of the finest films of the year. From its starkly gorgeous cinematography and atmospheric Western soundtrack to its top-notch cast and propulsive narrative, Hell or High Water is a heartbreaking movie that buzzes and hums with the undeniable weight of tragedy.
On its surface, Hell or High Water is a classic bank-heist caper in the mold of Bonnie and Clyde: A pair of busted-out brothers in west Texas, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), begin robbing small banks one by one, stealing just enough to pay off the reverse-mortgage that is holding their recently deceased mother’s property hostage. As their crime spree escalates, partly through accident and partly intent, the brothers are pursued by a crusty Texas Ranger approaching retirement (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham).
Mackenzie, working with a rich screenplay by Taylor Sheridan that captures the curt, wise vernacular of the South, keeps the action tight while also allowing full development of each character. As scenes cut back and forth between the pursued and the pursuer, we see what compels each man to do what he does, from Toby’s filial loyalty and Tanner’s self-destructive bent to the exhausted humanity that drives Bridges’ Ranger to chase the truth like a dog after a bone.
Beneath the suspenseful cat-and-mouse hook of its story, Hell or High Water evokes a deep and complex sense of inevitability, as though each character were fulfilling a fate long in the devising. This underlying fatality plays out like a curse, and it reveals the real power of this film. A smoldering, desperate anger surges beneath everything, the anger of everyday people sold out by the banks that have screwed them at every turn.
If The Big Short revealed to us exactly how that screwing happened, Hell or High Water shows us what getting fiscally fucked looks like at the ground level, in backwater towns where generations of ranchers watch helplessly as their hereditary holdings go up on the auction block of blatant corruption.
George Orwell said that all art is political, in that any creative effort must necessarily reflect the time and environment of its creation. What makes Mackenzie’s film such an achievement is that its politics is inseparable from its humanity, and the angst of its circumstances are sewn perfectly into the very palpable reality of characters who respond, not as abstractions, but as bone-and-gristle beings pushed to the limits of their reckoning. And a better cast couldn’t have been assembled to bring this drama to the boiling point, especially Bridges, whose hangdog resignation is the downbeat moral counterpoint to Foster’s charming nihilism.
Great art brings us face to face with who we are and where we’re at, and where we’re at right now ain’t all that pretty. Hell or High Water is a gritty, brutal film, but it’s also overflowing with an aching soulfulness that elevates it above the general run of crime films. I’m hard pressed to think of another movie this year that channels our national despair in such a real and tangible way. (Bijou Art Cinemas)