“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
A phrase that is ever so popular among seasoned moviegoers. Often times, it’s a lamentation that the leaner, more story driven films of old have been warped into tech demos. The Ten Commandments is now Exodus: Gods and Kings, Death Wish is now Taken 3. We’ve certainly had plenty of soulless dreck over this seemingly never ending summer to prove that theory true. However, right as we approach the end, Hell or High Water appears. A scrappy little modern western determined to hearken back to a more authentic period of filmmaking. It aims, in short, to do more with less.
The film begins with the Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), performing a bank robbery. This isn’t amateur hour at Wells Fargo either; these boys have it down to a science. Determined to raise enough money to save their family’s land, the brothers carry out an elaborate money funneling scheme. Meanwhile, aging detective Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) becomes obsessed with tracking the boys down before he retires. After all, what good is a cop who doesn’t go out with a bang?
We’re not exactly in unfamiliar territory here, and director David Mackenzie doesn’t pretend like we are. Instead, he focuses on taking the clichés of the genre, and building a solid foundation around them. That foundation is built on two duos, both beautifully brought to fruition by the actors. Pine and Foster have incredibly believable chemistry as brothers, both of them playing to their strengths. Pine is understated and kind, while Foster is loving but volatile. Meanwhile, Bridges gives one of his best turns in quite some time as the cynical lawman. Sure, he’s doing his Hamburglar cowboy voice again, but with a bit more depth. He brings much-needed humor and heart to the film, as a man right in the midst of his end-life crisis. He too has an excellent rapport with Gil Birmingham as his partner Alberto, who nicely balances him out with his more sober attitude.
Mackenzie drenches his film in the Texas sun, giving the film a beautifully rustic aesthetic. The temptation is high in films such as these to spice up rural America. Make it seem charming, and full of warm faces. Here, the supporting characters feel like genuine working class people. They talk back quite a bit and are certainly not Hollywood pretty, but there’s a genuine sense of community among them. This makes individual scenes a lot more compelling, as our main stars don’t have to rely on themselves to carry the weight. Every bit player is authentic, and the film’s look and feel does the rest.
Meanwhile, the action sequences are vintage western filmmaking. Mackenzie is incredibly methodical in his direction. He makes us wait long periods for more violence, as its sudden appearance is more jarring and intense. Every single gunshot has weight and impact, especially considering how real every character in the film feels. Even with these great set-pieces, some of the most intense moments come when there’s no violence at all. Sometimes it’s just a look that a character gives, or a moment of silence in which anything can happen.
Hell or High Water only seriously falters in its lack of originality. Sure, it’s all very well realized, but there really aren’t any surprises here. In fact, there are several moments with telegraphing so wonky that it might as well be pinned on the screen as a reminder. Also, while the brothers’ emotional motivations are very clear, the fine points of their plan occasionally seem convoluted. One has to wonder where either of them got the education to figure out such a complex scheme. It’s certainly better to have intelligent characters than stupid ones, but it occasionally does muddle the tone.
In a summer full of films that lazily regurgitate troupes, it’s nice to see a movie execute them with craftsmanship. Hell or High Water certainly isn’t going to win any points for changing the game. However, it plays the game well enough to stand-out. Rich performances and characters make all the difference in a film like this, and it has that in spades. It feels a film from the “used to,” era and I suspect for many, that will be more than enough.