HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016, David Mackenzie)
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s SICARIO expertly built a pessimistic, hopeless world and let its characters slowly drown in it like quicksand. HELL OR HIGH WATER does a similar job, staging the background of a simple cops and robbers story with a whole lot of resonance. Much like Andrew Dominik’s superb KILLING THEM SOFTLY (and, to some extent, Emilio Estevez’s WISDOM), this modern-day Western sets its sniper sights on the depressed economy, loud and clear. The opening shot tells you exactly what you’re in for: graffiti on a wall laments doing three tours in Iraq but not being the one to get a bailout. All Mackenzie needs to do is pan past that scrawl in his opening camera move and we know to expect a little bit of sermonizing.
Shortly after that, we discover our bank robbing brothers are just trying to steal enough money from Texas Midlands banks in order to settle a lien against their family ranch. A witness says, “They robbed the bank that’s been robbing me for thirty years.” A waitress points out that a $200 tip will go towards the mortgage keeping a roof over her family’s head. And when the cops are looking around the bank for its manager, they zero in on one guy by saying “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” Law-abiding citizens, the authorities, and the outlaws are all on the same page here: they’re beaten down by the system, as much victims of the economy as perpetrators of crimes. And in a state like Texas, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future. In what could have been a throwaway scene, the cops are stalled in a pursuit by a herd of cattle crossing the road to avoid a large brush fire: one cowboy tells Jeff Bridges’s lead Texas Ranger, “No wonder my kids don’t want to do this for a living.”
In lesser hands, this much message could be preachy, but Mackenzie leavens the dosage with his signature wily camera movement and focus on character. A big step up from STARRED UP, this picture manages to flesh out both sides of its cat and mouse chase, forming similarities between the partnerships you can’t see coming despite some of the shorthand clichés Sheridan delivers. We get the retiring cop taking on one last case (FALLING DOWN, SEVEN), the good-hearted lead tempted by his fuck-up brother/best friend (ROUNDERS, et. al.), and heist-gone-wrong-thanks-to-hero-hostages (you name it). But Bridges, Pine, Foster, and the underrated Gil Birmingham are good enough and sympathetic enough that every relationship matters and the end earns a great deal of emotion. When Bridges is finally wearing the same shirt as Pine instead of Birmingham, the effect says a lot without saying a word. Perhaps the rest of the film could have stood to do more of that, but this one still leaves a mark.