***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
written by Taylor Sheridan
directed by David Mackenzie
by Bryant Frazer Cops and criminals may clash on desolate West Texas landscapes, but late capitalism is the real enemy in Hell or High Water. The film declares its intentions in an elaborate opening shot that follows a weary-looking woman arriving for work in the morning as a 1987 Chevy Camaro circles the parking lot in the background. (Her right wrist is in a brace, probably to fend off carpal-tunnel syndrome, that occupational hazard of retail clerks and bank tellers everywhere.) The camera catches three lines of graffiti on the side of a building--"3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US"--as it dollies past before panning around more than 270 degrees to the left and pushing forward as our working woman heads towards the front of the Texas Midland Bank. Clearly visible through an architectural frame-with-a-frame created by the camera move are inlaid brick patterns in the shape of three crosses on a wall across the street. Just like that, director David Mackenzie establishes, first, the idea that the men in that blue Camaro are up to no good; second, the current of economic desperation driving screenwriter Taylor Sheridan's story; and third, the religious posturing that offers an alternative to existential despair, with roadside churches, TV evangelists, and Christian radio offering a relentless white-noise stream of piety on demand to an American underclass with nowhere left to turn.
The men in the car are Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), brothers on a small-time crime spree sticking up two-bit banks in one-horse towns. Toby is a sweet, soft-spoken guy with a broken heart and his brother is a piece of work with a chip on his shoulder and lips that won't stop flapping. They're all-in on a hopeless mission: stealing money, a little at a time, to raise the $43,000 required to save their dead mother's farm from foreclosure. The title of the film comes from a conversation between the Tanners and their lawyer in which he warns them that they have to have that money at the bank on Thursday, "come Hell or High Water." The original title of Taylor Sheridan's script, "Comancheria," came from a later conversation between all-American Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Mexican, half-American Indian partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The two are camped out on a dusty street corner in Coleman, TX, in hopes the Tanners will try to rob the bank branch across the way. Alberto reminds Marcus that the land was stolen from the Comanche by settlers who would become Texans, and Alberto reckons those Texans are now having their land stolen from them by the bankers.
A plot synopsis makes it sound like a bummer, but Hell or High Water is witty and light on its feet, with bursts of nervous action throughout. Director Mackenzie ably manages the film's shifts from heavier to lighter tones and back again, relying on performance as the main mood-setting tool. Bridges and Birmingham have an easygoing, laid-waaaaay-back rapport that defangs Marcus's racist wisecracks and Alberto's ageist insults. The cranky-partners-trading-japes routine is about as tired as the aging-cop-on-the-verge-of-retirement trope, but the mournful quality of Sheridan's script helps Bridges and Birmingham invest their scenes with something approaching pathos. And a scene set in Coleman's T-Bone Cafe, where a tetchy waitress (Margaret Bowman) demands, "What don't you want?" before informing them they're both having steak, is for the ages. Fewer chucklesome moments take place between Pine and Foster; their relationship emphasizes Toby's abiding sadness and regret over the family he mistreated (beyond nods to alcohol abuse the sorry details are not proffered--nor do we need specifics, given Pine's skilfully charismatic display of remorse) and Tanner's sometimes frighteningly short fuse. Tanner's a fairly charming character--he sweet-talks a front-desk clerk into his motel room bed in about 60 seconds flat--but he's disturbingly amoral, having no compunctions about squeezing a trigger to save his ass. His redeeming facet is an obvious love for Toby that leads him on what could be a mission of self-immolation; the financial side of the caper is deliberately structured so that the Tanner family ranch ends up held in a trust, where it remains safe if the Howards end up rotting in jail. When push comes to shove, big brother keeps little brother focused so the bottom doesn't fall out of the scheme. Foster is remarkable, managing to suggest a core of love, loyalty, and determination underneath the often-unpleasant exterior.
Outlaw antiheroes are nothing new in the western, of course, yet setting this story at a specific American moment--essentially post-Obama but still pre-Trump--adds to its plangency. That's not to say Hell or High Water attests to the nobility of ordinary Americans or any horseshit like that; during the first hold-up we see, one of the bank patrons scolds the Howard boys with a racist bromide: "That's crazy--y'all ain't even Mexicans." Later, a heist goes wrong (you know one of these heists is going to go wrong), not as much because the Howards underestimate the difficulty of the job as from the presence of a wannabe hero with a gun in his pants who turns the hold-up into a bloodbath. "These concealed-carry permits sure complicate a bank robbery, don't they?" Tanner complains brightly as the duo roars away from the scene of the crime in a bullet-riddled Ford Bronco, pursued by a vigilante convoy into the wilderness outside town.
Mackenzie's visual strategy lets the scenery tell an important chunk of the story. Though Hell or High Water is set in Texas, shooting actually took place just over the New Mexico border, in the Land of Enchantment and Tax Credits, and the film gets a strong sense of context from images of the dried-up Howard Family Ranch, the run-down, oddly depopulated-seeming cities, and the vast, empty prairie and sagebrush steppes that surround them. Although the overall dusty atmosphere against bright blue skies lends itself to a palette that verges on the modish teal-and-orange scheme, mostly DP Giles Nuttgens nails a rich, colourful (if muted) look that puts an appealing contemporary gloss on obvious visual precedents like Badlands or Bridges's own Thunderbolt and Lightfoot without romanticizing the environments. Meanwhile, the dirge-like score--Nick Cave's rumbling low piano notes and Warren Ellis's quivering strings--sings an elegy for an America on its deathbed after a long illness. There's no glorification of the American West here--Toby knows what being poor is like, and what it's become: "like a disease passing from generation to generation." I wouldn't describe Hell or High Water as a metaphor for revolution, exactly, though Toby shares motivation with characters from any number of other films about armed revolt against unjust regimes. What really makes it is the final showdown: an exchange of words rather than bullets, where Bridges's principled lawman and Pine's unlikely desperado engage in measured conversation freighted with suspicion, distrust, loathing, and, just maybe, empathy. It's an unsettled ending to a unsettling crime story that's just about perfect for our morally-compromised times.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate‘s new Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc release--packaged with a standard-def BD and a digital download code--offers a great excuse to revisit Hell or High Water, which I liked well enough but underrated on first viewing. Shot with ARRI Alexa XT cameras, whose resolution maxes out at around 3.2K, the film doesn't seem like a prime candidate for a 4K upgrade, but as usual HDR enhancements are the main selling point. I was skeptical that the extended brightness and expanded colour space would have much to offer, but I was proved wrong almost immediately. From the opening scene, the exterior shots glow a warm orange that really catches the harshness of the sun over the Southwest; I imagined I could feel the warmth radiating off my TV screen. The effect is even more pronounced in many interiors, where the bright highlights glimpsed through open windows offer a stark contrast with the shadowed action indoors. If someone ever asks you, "What's HDR?" you can show them a scene with Chris Pine and Ben Foster in the shadows of their front porch with the clouds burning white in a hot-looking sky behind them to demonstrate how much the visual dynamics amplify the sense of place versus even an excellent SDR presentation. The effects are so dramatic I found myself wondering if DP Nuttgens was invited to approve the HDR pass. Hope so. (Note: my Sony X800 Blu-ray player supports only HDR10, so it's possible Dolby Vision would offer an even more impressive HDR experience.) The picture is crisp overall, with lots of fine detail apparent, though perhaps not quite as much as might be visible were the movie lensed at a higher resolution. There is a fine layer of noise throughout, thicker in the darker scenes, that I assume is the result of a grain pass to add a bit of texture to the smooth digital image. DTS-HD MA sound quality is similarly excellent throughout, full of modest but on-point effects that help describe the environments--birds, cattle, buzzing insects. The Cave/Ellis soundtrack gets the full 5.1 treatment, but the sound field truly roars to life with the use of country-rock from the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Chris Stapleton and the highly-directional gunfire following a botched robbery.
Ported over from the existing Blu-ray release, extras are limited to video featurettes; there is still no audio commentary. The longest supplement is an engaging "Filmmaker Q&A" (30 mins., HD) recorded after a screening at the Arclight Hollywood with Mackenzie, Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham in attendance and TIME magazine's Sam Lansky moderating. Mackenzie identifies classic Bridges films that directly influenced this one; Bridges--now an elder statesman of slacker cinema--performs for the crowd almost as if he's in character as The Dude himself; and Pine reveals that he and Bridges only spent one day on set together: "I had to get out to do my space film." "Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water" (14 mins., HD) is a standard studio talking-head featurette, perhaps a little deeper than most, where various members of cast and crew (including producers Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn) discuss the film's portrayal of brotherly love, generational poverty, and Texas rangers. "Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water" (12 mins., HD) is a companion piece dealing with performance, concentrating on the work of Pine, Foster, and Bridges. Pine's comments on the advantages of working on a mid-budget indie-style set compared to a larger studio production are insightful. And "Visualizing the Heart of America" (9 mins., HD) brings production designer Tom Duffield into the mix alongside the regular commentators to talk about shooting on real locations when possible, while some behind-the-scenes footage accompanies the usual assortment of film clips. Mackenzie makes a case for the appeal of "high, hard light," which illuminates a lot of exterior shots in the film, and takes a moment to appreciate DP Nuttgens's work lighting the interior of a motel room--a nice touch. Finally, "Red Carpet Premiere" (2 mins., HD) is scarcely more than a collection of soundbites from Mackenzie, Pine, Bridges, Birmingham, and Foster recorded at the film's Alamo Drafthouse premiere in Austin, TX. The Blu-ray's suite of trailers promoting the likes of Mechanic: Resurrection, Blood Father, The Duel, and the also-Sheridan-scripted Sicario, does not seem to be featured on the UHD disc.