Some times it takes an outsider to take a nation’s temperature. Armed with a lean, sharp script from Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Scots director David Mackenzie does no less, serving up a spare, elegiac tale of two bank-robbing brothers on a crime spree in recession-hit, hardscrabble Texas that feels almost like The Big Short Goes West. 

After years of estrangement, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard are reunited after the death of their mother. The family farm is mortgaged to the hilt and the brothers have just days to raise the money that’ll pay off the debt, preventing the bank from foreclosing and seizing their suddenly oil-rich land. Quiet, thoughtful, law-abiding younger brother Toby has a plan though and needs unpredictable ex-con Tanner’s help to see it through. 

They’ll rob a series of banks, first thing in the morning just after they open, they’ll take only the loose low-denomination cash in the tellers’ drawers and they’ll get away clean, without hurting anyone. And they’ll only rob branches of the bank that holds the paper on their farm, the Texas Midland. They’ll then drive across the border into Oklahoma and wash the cash at an Indian casino, paying the bank back with the laundered proceeds. 

While most of the local law write their crime spree off as amateurish, the size of the takes barely worth the effort of investigating, aging Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) knows men with a plan when he runs across them and sets out to nab the brothers in the act. 

With time running out and Marcus on their tale, the brothers are forced to take increasingly desperate measures when a robbery goes wrong… 

Already being universally hailed by critics as the best American film of 2016, Mackenzie’s Hell Or High Water presents a gritty, morally grey, melancholy ode to America’s poor and disenfranchised that could almost have been written by Woody Guthrie. The Howard Boys are quintessentially American heroes, part of an outlaw folklore tradition that dates back to Jesse James and Butch Cassidy by way of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” they tell bystanders. When Bridges’ grizzled lawman questions some aging cowpokes in a diner across the street from a hold-up, the tell him they’d been there “long enough to watch the bank get robbed that’s been robbing me for thirty years.” Even Bridges comments that a bank manager looks like the kind of guy who’d foreclose on a house. 

It’s economic blight, corrosive debt and a desire to break the cyclic legacy of poverty and create a better life for the next generation that drives Pine and Foster’s likable bandits. They may be robbing you with a six-gun, but it’s the predatory banks that rob you with a fountain pen that are the real thieves. Which doesn’t mean to say that the common man is entirely on the brothers side though as, this being Texas, every other cowboy has a concealed weapon, the spectacle of a self-appointed posse of heavily armed middle-aged citizens pursuing the boys after a bank raid goes spectacularly wrong is both blackly comic and terrifying, each have-a-go hero caught up in the Western myth of masculinity, trying to do what a man’s gotta do. 

As the cheerfully ornery lawman, Bridges chews the scenery as expected but is at least coherent enough to deliver Sheridan’s crackling dialogue intelligibly and there is a genuine warmth and playfulness beneath the casual racism of his bantering relationship with Native American partner Alberto (a solid, sympathetic Gil Birmingham) who gives as good as he gets, their relationship encapsulating 500 years of White America’s relationship with the Native population. Foster meanwhile, who can do crazy, wild card shit-kicker in his sleep these days, brings a real pathos and tragedy to the mercurial Tanner. Reckless, violent, a loose cannon just looking for somewhere to go off, only too painfully aware of his own nature, ultimately redeemed by love and loyalty to his brother, his air of fatalism is evident when he tells the younger man to go visit his estranged sons as “I never knew anyone who got away with anything. Ever.” When Pine asks why he agreed to help him, he answers “Because you asked, Little Brother,” the exchange heavy with three-and-some decades of history. 

There’s strong support too from Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman as two very different scene-stealing waitresses who each have the measure of Bridges’ Marcus. The real revelation of the film though is Pine who as Toby delivers a subtle, brooding performance that may finally see him emerge from the shadow of James T. Kirk and cement his status as a leading man. 

Atmospherically shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens with a beauty that’s as spare as Sheridan’s script and scored by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, the eclectic Mackenzie who, over the course of 14 years and nine films, has given us psychosexual misery in Young Adam, a Glaswegian end of the world fable in Perfect Sense and the blistering prison drama Starred Up, here proves again that he’s one of the most interesting, indefinable British directors working today, giving us his most accessible, entertaining and, arguably, populist film, the bleached vistas, deserted washed-up towns, rusted cars and bullet-peppered road signs as desolate and hopeless as a Glasgow tenement or an English prison and there’s a delicious irony that the best Western to come out of Hollywood in years is by a Glaswegian. Especially if you’ve ever tried to have a peaceful drink in Glasgow City Centre on a Friday night. 

By turns somber and darkly funny, laid-back yet urgent, Hell Or High Water is an intelligent, richly textured, crime thriller that’s so much more than an elegy for the dying West, celebrating even as it subverts the conventions of the genre. In a Summer of disappointing children’s films featuring men in tights and capes punching each other, David Mackenzie’s Hell Or High Water is a welcome relief; bold, thoughtful, entertaining filmmaking aimed squarely at adults.

Movie Review: Hell Or High Water
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