Midway through Hell Or High Water there’s a shot of a Stetson-wearing cowpoke unhitching his horse at a gas station as a lime-green abomination straight out of Pimp My Ride rolls into view. It’s a throwaway moment and you could argue that it’s as subtle as, well, a tricked-out muscle car, but that juxtaposition of old and new is key to what stops this lean, complex Cannes competitor being just another Southern-fried tale of desperate men and dirty deeds.
This is a deceptively simple tale that drags the Old West into the modern age.
The story — a Black List script from actor and on-a-hot-streak Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan — has a pleasing ring of familiarity. British director David Mackenzie (on his own hot-streak after his gut-punch of a prison drama Starred Up) throws us straight into a twitchy, sun-baked West Texan bank robbery. We soon meet the two brothers behind the heist — Toby (Pine), a former gas company worker and divorced father of two, and Tanner (Foster), an unpredictable career criminal — and discover they’re on a meticulously planned mission to gather enough unmarked bills to prevent the foreclosure of their late mother’s farmland.
If you’ve seen No Country For Old Men (or, for that matter, Heat) you’ll know what happens next. Enter Marcus (Bridges reviving his marble-gargling Rooster Cogburn drawl from the Coen brothers’ True Grit remake), an uncompromising, zinger-ready Texas Ranger who, alongside his part-Comanche partner Alberto (Twilight’s Birmingham), saddles up to track down the brothers before their next big score. From here, as Tanner and Toby squabble through preparations for the final part of their plan, there’s a compelling, almost mythic quality to the inevitable collision between these mismatched duos on opposing sides of the law. The creeping dread is helped along by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ typically foreboding score.
Yes, there are abundant crime flick clichés (Marcus is due to leave the force, obviously) but, like that vignette at the petrol pumps, they’re nearly always served up with a sardonic modern twist. Mackenzie has a painterly eye for the surreal in the everyday and presents a post-recession world of looming debt-management billboards, unemployed Iraq veterans and men in cowboy hats puffing e-cigarettes. What’s more, there’s an irresistible seam of Texan black comedy running through the whole thing: after one robbery, for example, a passerby casually offers to string up the perpetrators.
Bridges is having a ball. He can probably play this kind of cantankerous old badass in his sleep now, but here he salts Marcus’ one-liners with a weary vulnerability and the desperation of a reluctant retiree. Pine and Foster impress too, with an easy fraternal chemistry and faultless Southern accents.
The face-off, when it arrives, comes amid a hail of bullets and, with the current debate around US gun control raging, the way the film plays a gaggle of pistol-wielding bystanders for laughs feels somewhat unfortunate. But this
is a minor quibble. Sheridan once again proves adept at expertly managed tension as well as earthy, economic dialogue and this classy neo-Western ends as enjoyably and distinctively as it began.