A divorced dad and his ex-con brother rob banks in west Texas in order to save their family ranch, in this new thriller
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Release date: September 9, 2016
Running time: 102 mins
British director David Mackenzie drew deserved critical acclaim with his stunning 2013 prison drama Starred Up, giving lead actor Jack O’Connell a leg-up towards his Hollywood career in the process.
On the evidence of his follow-up film, Mackenzie could well be onto something of a hot streak. Combining a hot script from Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and a terrific cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster, Hell or High Water is a gripping cops-and-robbers thriller with a strong sense of place and a timely thematic undercurrent that packs a powerful emotional punch.
Set in dust-blown West Texas, the film centres on divorced father of two Toby (Pine), who’s found oil on the disused ranch land he inherited from his late mother, but stands to lose everything as the bank are threatening to foreclose.
In desperation, he hatches a plan to pull off a series of low-key bank heists with his fresh-out-of-jail ex-con brother Tanner (Foster), who takes to the idea rather too enthusiastically.
However, they have reckoned without world-weary, brink-of-retirement Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges), who figures out what they’re up to and gives chase, accompanied by his loyal part-Native American deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Pine continues to show why he’s one of Hollywood’s best leading men, delivering a compelling performance as a man who’s been pushed to breaking point and wears the guilt of his actions heavily, despite having nowhere else to turn.
He’s matched by Foster (reliably excellent as always), who finds moving levels of pathos and self-awareness beneath the surface of Tanner’s hot-headed screw-up.
In addition, Bridges is on terrific form as the dogged Ranger (watching him piece together the clues is a joy in and of itself) and he puts in his most enjoyable turn since True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn, to whom Marcus could well be a distant relative.
Similarly, Birmingham creates an engaging rapport with Bridges and there’s strong support from a host of familiar bit-part character actors playing a colourful assortment of Texas denizens.
Pace and atmosphere
Sheridan’s script astutely draws on the timely financial crisis backdrop to add an intriguing layer of moral complexity to its central characters (Toby only steals from the bank that sold his mother the loan in the first place), elevating this into much more than a simple black hat vs white hat story.
On top of that, Mackenzie has an assured grasp of both pace and atmosphere, cranking up the tension as the characters proceed along their inevitable collision course, before delivering handsomely in the action sequence department.
Superbly directed, brilliantly written and topped by a trio of terrific performances, this is unquestionably one of the best thrillers of the year. Highly recommended.