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Categories: Movie Reviews

David Mackenzie’s latest has enough looks, brains and heart to stand among modern greats.

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More than a simple heist movie, Hell or High Water is a distinctive, tragic yet comedic depiction of the strife and hardship felt across modern Texas. The film follows brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they rampage through the Southern States on a series of retributory bank heists to alleviate their crippling debt and foreclosure on the family ranch. The two men exhibit an authentic rapport with one another, fuelled by the sardonic, and at often times, unforgiving mockery so often associated with this facet of North America.

Their journey is framed within the dry, dusty, muted yet vibrant tones of expansive highways and boundless hills, deadbeat towns with sour inhabitants, two gunslingers in a county of gunslingers. Their haphazard string of robberies is closely tailed by retiring Texas Ranger Marcus, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, whose unwavering ability to instill characters with a sense of purpose and emotional sincerity does not fail to deliver here.

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Despite it’s grounding in bank robbery, guns, whores and casinos, all the signifiers of a modern Western, the film depicts brotherly love, undying and loyal as they defy the tyranny of a repressive capitalist institution. The film repeatedly hints to the complex history of ancestral relationships and the wonderful, interwoven irony of the human experience. More than this, we witness the pervasive importance and intricacies of family values and the comradery of Texas living. Taylor Sheridan’s script is quick-witted and sarcastic, showcasing the resolute friendlessness of Southern U.S. natives, even when held at gunpoint. And this is where much of the comedy lies, within the resounding sense of community and Texan apathy towards violence and guns yet comparative intolerance for stupidity and sin. This is a harsh and unforgiving land, populated by harsh, unforgiving people. The infamous Southern hospitality that when threatened quickly descends into Southern hostility, made all the more dangerous by the prevalent tradition of the State’s populace to exercise their right to ‘bear arms.’

The film is an entertaining and farcical tale of latter-day cowboys disregarding law and order for personal gain and evocative justice; however, it cannot be solely classified as such. In amidst the palatable comedic timing of so many of the characters, leading and otherwise, there are jarring moments of harsh reality: the tragedy of Toby’s inexorable resort to unlawful restitution in the face of unwarranted oppression, Marcus’ defiance in accepting his retirement and inability to yield deep-rooted prejudices, the constant reminders of Mexican racism and Native American atrocities that are so particularly felt in this part of the U.S. and the widespread destitute living of the deprived, abandoned towns that are defiantly yet sparsely colonised by struggling, unhopeful and forsaken citizens.

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While we are reminded of the Old West in imagery and habitual convention, director David Mackenzie brings a wholly contemporary emphasis to the genre; the times have changed, the enemies modernised but the hardships and people remain the same. The vast and fiery landscape is just as merciless as it has always been and the victims are still those who are unable to seek reparation for themselves. There is a strong sense of mourning for the extinction of old Texan customs that struggle to survive in the new world, ranch farming no longer a profitable means of living and religion no longer a source of comfort or refuge. Suffering from disillusionment over the supposed benefits and advancements of modern living, the Texan people voice their grievances in a perfectly Texan manner, with an air of dignity and propriety but always with a gun in their holster.

Mackenzie’s fable of highway vigilantism is an exquisitely photographed homage to the quintessential Western adapted for a modern audience with modern anxieties. It ultimately transcends the limitations of the genre and becomes an expansive insight into the death of Texan livelihood, the encroachment of modern consumerism and the detrimental effects of big business on little people, and the cyclical repeat of poverty breeding poverty. This film is a hyper-realised Western nightmare solely endured by the Southern people and their renowned honour and sacrifice, an eternal and proud way of life, comparable only to the interminable desert of which it was born into.

Hell or High Water is out now in select cinemas.

Francesca Amoroso

Francesca is currently a Camera Assistant, working and living in London. She is an MA Film Studies graduate from UCL and writes about film in her spare time.

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Posted on Sep 22, 2016

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