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Hell or High Water – an arresting morality tale

April 17th, 2017  |  Published in New Reels

Taylor Sheridan has followed up his spectacular script for Sicario with one for David Mackenzie’s impressive crime drama Hell or High Water.

Taylor Sheridan really is a screenwriter to watch. His spectacular original script exploring the current battle for supremacy in the American and Mexican drug wars made Sicario a stand-out cinematic moment for me in 2015. So naturally when I heard that his follow-up Hell or High Water was a similarly contemporary story but this time mixed with almost western elements, it was a must-see.

I’d reckoned though without a somewhat limited distribution for the movie in the UK. Even in London, you sort of blinked and missed it on its release last autumn. But I’ve tracked it down now it’s out on DVD and on-demand and well, my tweet sort of sums up the experience of having seen it at last:

‘Always great when you finally get to see a highly lauded movie & it’s completely deserved. Hell or High Water is one such movie. Superb’

It is great when that happens, isn’t it? You see a piece of work that is justified in all the people who raved about it. And why it was nominated for 4 Oscars. Because not only does Hell or High Water boast a top drawer cast, it’s intelligently directed by David Mackenzie. There’s no overt style on show here and I mean that in the best sense. I almost felt his direction was invisible as he allowed the drama to just unfold simply and realistically.

And oh, that cast. There’s the wonderful Chris Pine who’s making a real mark in roles away from the fantasy universe. The incredible Ben Foster who tears up the screen in whatever he’s in. And the inimitable Jeff Bridges who pulls your gaze to him in every scene that he’s a part of (also earning another Oscar nomination in the process).

And so to the movie itself… Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine and Foster respectively) are struggling. Following their mother’s recent death, the family farm in West Texas is under threat. Unless Toby can find $43,000, the banks will own the property within the week. And having just discovered oil on the farm, if the mortgage is paid off, Toby’s family will be set for the rest of their lives.

With no other option, the brothers come up with a daring plan. They turn bank robbers, stealing money from the branches of the very bank who own the mortgage. If the plan works and they get enough money together, they will pay off the mortgage with the bank’s stolen funds by the Friday deadline. Audacious but also very dangerous.

The robberies attract the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) who feels there’s a story behind these crimes and along with his long-suffering, dry witted American Indian partner Alberto Parker (an almost scene-stealing Gil Birmingham) they are soon on the brothers’ trail.

Although the movie has a very contemporary setting, with the billboards of its West Texas locale silently illustrating the great loans with which its population can get into even greater debt, there is a palpable sense of the Old West here. It’s not just the stetsons that the Texas Rangers still wear but the western family values of defending a homestead at all costs that make this film really something.

I also felt what you get from Sheridan in his super-smart screenplay is a kind of biblical storytelling. An awareness that what we’re watching is a morality tale. And an arresting one at that. Good people, pushed into making decisions that can turn them bad. No one comes out with their values or the lives that they knew intact. And that makes for one hell of an exciting movie. You should see this.

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