HELL OR HIGH WATER Review
Director: David Mackenzie
Genre: Action, Drama
The Texas prairie, divided in half by a cement road. Down the street drives a police car. Inside is a sheriff, a cowboy through and through, and his partner, half-Comanche, half-Mexican. They spy a fire in the distance. Cattle are being herded away from the looming danger by a team of wranglers. The old West is dying; a new West is taking hold, one built upon the debt of countless tours in the Middle East and the wealth of oil buried under our feet. This is no longer Indian land. This is no longer Cowboy land. This is a new America, controlled by banks and enterprise, but if you dare, it’s yours for the taking. It was at this moment that I proclaimed, “Goddamn, this is so up my alley.”
With HELL OR HIGH WATER, director David Mackenzie has followed up the massive critical acclaim of STARRED UP with a screenplay penned by Taylor Sheridan, responsible for the writing in Denis Villeneuve’s smash hit, SICARIO. Throw Warren Ellis and Nick Cave into the mix for the original soundtrack and you have a recipe for a brilliant modern neo-western. And for the most part, it’s the surprise story of this summer, a film that will certainly go overlooked by viewers around the globe.
The Dude abides the law
HELL OR HIGH WATER tracks the fates of two duos: a pair of brothers on the run from the law, committing small-time bank robberies, and two lawmen on their quest to stop them. While HELL OR HIGH WATER follows the basic principles of a generic heist film, its execution is what helps set itself apart. It’s hard enough to write a compelling team dynamic, let alone two, and Sheridan’s attention to character detail allows the screenplay to seamlessly balance the individual teams.
Sheridan’s character’s are built like a human jenga, each superior to the one preceding it. Jeff Bridges, in a late-career stride, portrays an elderly sheriff whose racist jabs at his Native American partner represent a deep-seated perceived superiority, both in rank and race. Ben Foster plays an old West outlaw, a wildcard that can hold his own against those who walked the land before him, but must ultimately pay his dues when confronted by the law. Chris Pine, however, showcases a modern outlaw, a product of the 21st Century’s West, above the law and above the system, not tethered by any man.
Could have paid for their oil rig by stripping
And with that, Sheridan and Mackenzie create a brilliant inversion of the Western stereotype. Gunfights are aimless and accidental, confused and unplanned. Mackenzie showcases this in his final gunfight, which very intentionally never takes place near a ranch, windmill, church, or bank, because that West no longer exists. Instead, it’s fought with snipers, cowardly firing from hilltops, succeeding only because one had the drop on the other. This new West is created through money laundering, which Pine and Foster accomplish by gambling at casinos. What’s disappointing is that this message of the colonialists comeuppance could have been made all the more poignant if the film had actively pursued showcasing that these are Native American-owned casinos.
And still, Mackenzie assembles a phenomenally engaging cat-and-mouse film. Through this subversive filmmaking approach, HELL OR HIGH WATER plays like a riff on THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, fortified through a socio-political commentary that was similarly executed in KILLING THEM SOFTLY and the Pulitzer prize-nominated novel THE SON. Although Sheridan’s screenplay ultimately feels like it’s just a hair away from being perfectly refined, the faultless writing, and its dedication to the vérité are not only profound, but stylish and entertaining to a T. It’s a shame that Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s phenomenal songwriting isn’t used to greater effect, often opting for tepid country radio tunes instead, but thanks to a powerhouse of a third act, this might just be the most elegant film of the summer.