Texan Hold Up
If David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is one of the year’s finest thrillers, it’s because it understands that the best American cinema came out of the 1970s, and can be earmarked as such because of its interest in personal stories with pertinent and profound social themes. In other words, American film at its best dares to cast a critical eye on all the zeitgeistian stuff that conventional wisdom demands you go to the cinema to escape. High Water’s a crime thriller, a road movie, and ostensibly a simple story about a couple of Texan bank robbers and the rustic cops on their trail, but to say that’s all there is to it would be like arguing that Five Easy Pieces is about a man taking a road trip with his girlfriend.
Mackenzie’s movie is a contemporary Western, and like the best of them it’s concerned with the moral character of the frontier, and whether the lawless and the righteous have a foot in each other’s territory. Here there are bank robbers and banks that rob, Cowboys and Indians wearing the same uniform, hunting down the blue collar victims of white collar crime. It’s possible to sympathise both with Chris Pine and Ben Foster, and their plan to defraud the predatory capitalists that tricked their trusting old dear into debt in order to seize her oil rich land, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s sincere and world weary sheriffs, whose journey through a land of rust, foreclosures and dilapidated businesses, hints at their quarry’s motives.
This is a film about two sets of partners, two sets of brothers in essence – one literal, one a product of a long lasting and combative friendship, conditioned by an unjust society to be on opposing sides. One wishes they could reunite to fight the real criminals – the banks, but that’s not the real world. In the unforgiving reality High Water marks with great fidelity, good people get hurt and a struggling waitress and single mother doesn’t get to keep a $200 tip paid in stolen cash. That’s life, and like the ghost towns deep poverty’s created, it ain’t pretty.
So Hell or High Water’s a morally ambiguous and personally affecting thriller, interested in the new poor and the people responsible for making them so. It’s part Robin Hood fantasy, part revisionist Western (Birmingham’s speech detailing how the white settlers who dispossessed Native Americans have had the same treatment from the symbols of their own exploitative legacy, is a touchstone for the movie overall). The performances are gritty and understated, the direction intimate and serious, the landscape treacherous. Those seeking a primer on what’s going on in America right now, and what its film industry is still capable of, should make time for it come – er, well – you know.