Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Director: David Mackenzie
Running Time: 102 mins
Synopsis: Brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) initiate a series of bank heists in Texas, all in aid of screwing the bank over that caused issues for their late mother. As they get in deeper, an old about to retire Texas Ranger (Bridges) and his partner get closer to stopping the brothers by any means necessary.
Westerns have become a tricky genre. Once the pinnacle of Hollywood movie making, basically the comic book movie of the 50s, they have since become a rare and quite frankly unpopular genre. Out and out classical Westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma, while pretty good, suffered at the box office and are pretty much forgotten. It is in the modern day western where the genre finds new life. Tales of lone men seeking meaning in life whilst battling violent impulses amongst barren landscapes. No Country for Old Men being the most recent big success. Hell or High Water can also add itself to that esteemed company, as well as becoming one of the best films of the year.
Dropping us dizzingly (quite literally in the case of the circular 360 degree moving camerawork) into a small town bank heist. Right from the off you get the sense of how special this film is going to be. As the brothers attack and are confronted with the knowledge that the safe isn’t open yet, the interplay between the boys and the bank teller becomes equal parts tense and funny. You read that right, funny. The use of humour here and throughout the film is a major component of why it is so successful. Nothing makes you care and believe in characters more than comedic banter. One man is to be thanked for all this, Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan. A vital reason for that films success and once again he brings that incredibly layered writing to the table. He manages to lace exposition into scenes with complete naturalism.
Sheridan is given able support from a director and a cast of impeccable skill. David Mackenzie continues the muscular work that he utilised so well in last years gritty Starred Up. Foregoing any stylish directorial tricks, save the aforementioned spinning camerawork, he has the confidence in his scriptwriter’s words and his cast to sit back and let it unfold. Unravelling with clarity, tightness and a terrific ear. The score, composed and sung by Nick Cave, is beautiful and evocative. After this Mackenzie shoots himself to the top of the director pack.
The last factor in this trifecta of awesomeness is the cast who all deliver career best work. Chris Pine is shorn of his charisma and swagger, instead bringing a performance of quiet melancholy. He is the soulful heart of the two brothers, only coming up with this plan in order to provide a future for his young sons. His character being one of many in the film motivated by the economical strictures of the backwater Texan locale they find themselves in.
If Pine brings the soul Foster is the one to bring the colour and rage. In a film ripe with odes to the paths we choose for good or bad, he is the one who has no regrets about the road he has taken. Comfortable with violence, thanks to a spell in jail, and incredibly confident in all that he does. It is a captivating and engrossing performance. Unpredictable and forceful he may be but under it all you sense the insane affection he feels for his little brother. He would and just may give his life to help him out.
Pine and Foster aren’t the only ones with incredible chemistry. On the other side of the law we have Bridges and Gil Birmingham as long time partners. Bridges is one of the finest actors working today and saying here he just may be the best he’s ever been is something to celebrate. One case away from retirement (the only aspect that’s close to cliche here) he has an almost supernatural sense of what the titular brothers will do next. Yet this never feels like an easy storytelling shortcut merely the feeling that he has seen it all and fought them all. The chemistry he shares with Birmingham’s half Indian half Mexican cop is playful, moving and rich with history. Although never explicitly said you feel their connection through the consistent and mildly racist banter between them. These two sit alongside other great movie police duos such as Riggs and Murtaugh or even this years Nice Guys. One moment towards the end between them resulted in gasps from the audience I saw it with and some of the rawest acting I’ve ever seen from Bridges.
It is genuinely hard to find anything wrong with this film and I’m not going to even attempt to. It is refreshing to witness a film that comes from nowhere that knocks you for six. You will be thrilled, moved, engrossed and in one of the biggest surprises laugh your ass off. Not many Westerns I can think of can do that.
Verdict: Rough, rugged, essential filmmaking. Combining huge talents both in front of and behind the camera to deliver something truly special. Miss this at your peril.