David Mackenzieâ€™s feature Hell or High Water played in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and is a wonderful mix of different genres such as the Western, a heist movie and a road movie with comedic elements. The dark and witty screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the critically acclaimed thriller Sicario (selected for the Official Competition in 2015) and intended to write Hell or High Water as part of a trilogy of the so-called contemporary New West, according to the press kit.
Hell or High Water is a morally complex film structured around two brothers who couldnâ€™t be more different from one another. The unlike brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are reunited after years apart and find themselves robbing several banks of the Texas Midlands bank branch, which is threatening to foreclose on their family land. The bank and its system is turned into the villain of the story, representing a contemporary and recurring theme of the film. Throughout the landscape the brothers pass by for example, there are “For Sale” signs and “Need a Loan?” bank advertisements that reflect on the financial crises and poverty of the area.
While the film is celebrating old values such as brotherhood and loyalty, it is also a story of lost dreams and draws attention to the small town image that is undergoing severe change in a fast-forward moving world.
Toby is no ordinary bank robber. He is a quiet and reserved character who is not enjoying his crimes at all and is still trying to do the right thing, which adds to the moral grayness of the film. He is divorced and a father of two but unable to provide for his family. He has been taking care of his mother until her recent death and just found out that the bank is ready to repossess their land. Toby tries to make up to his family and the only way for him to buy his familyâ€™s land back and to give his children some safety is by robbing the exact bank that screwed him over in the first place.
Thatâ€™s when his brother Tanner comes into play. He has been to prison and is the complete opposite of Toby. He is fierce and tough and ready to rob those banks in order to help out his brother, who would not have been able to go through with his plan without him. They remain loyal to each other throughout the film and are ready to do anything for their familyâ€™s heritage and legacy. These moral shades is what Mackenzie calls a “redemptive criminality where good people do bad things for good reason”.
Toby and Tanner soon find themselves on the radar of Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). For Marcus, hunting down the two bank robbers will be his last case before his unwanted retirement. Similar to Toby and Tanner, the two men share a deep connection although their relationship is charged with sarcastic and racial insults since Alberto is half Comanche and half Mexican. Marcus, who is White, constantly teases his partner about it and although it might seem harsh, their back and forth of insults seem lighthearted as neither is actually serious about it and it is their way of communicating with each other.
[…] the film is dominated by earthy colors that highlight the importance of the landscape and the meaning it has for the two brothers and their future.
Hell or High Water is not just a heist story but also a tale of brotherhood â€“ whether it is blood brothers or not â€“ since Toby and Tanner as well as Marcus and Alberto are devoted to protect the other and remain loyal despite their obvious differences in character and maybe even beliefs. While the film is celebrating old values such as brotherhood and loyalty, it is also a story of lost dreams and draws attention to the small town image that is undergoing severe change in a fast-forward moving world. It therefore reflects on contemporary themes that are quite relevant to our times, especially in regards to the financial crisis with a family losing their home to a bank. It generally shows American life in the 21st century not only with its economical but also racial tensions that are mainly portrayed by Marcus and his partner Alberto.
Mackenzie makes use of long takes that take in the moment and capture the openness of the countryside while the set design reflects the landscape by working with brown, beige and green tones. In general, the film is dominated by earthy colors that highlight the importance of the landscape and the meaning it has for the two brothers and their future. Hell or High Water remains a steady rhythm throughout the film and keeps its focus on the four men by alternating between the two storylines of the two brothers and the two Texas Rangers, that eventually wind up together.
Hell or High Water is an exciting and honest film about loss and vengeance with very human and relatable characters.