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Hell or High Water (2016)

David Mackenzie continues to resist typecasting of his work by following up his 2013 prison drama, Starred Up, with what feels like a modern western, Hell or High Water. The successful unearthing of scripts that were previously black listed seems to be a recurring theme at the moment, and it was Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water that won the 2012 survey of as yet unpublished scripts. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play down-on-their-luck brothers who turn to bank heists for necessary funds. Jeff Bridges plays himself a wisened Texas Ranger close to retirement who is assigned the job of putting their run to an end alongside his partner (Gil Birmingham). I had only heard good things about this going in to it and was gutted I had missed an exclusive preview a few weeks back so this is one I was really looking forward to.

So often there are comparisons between the merits of modern television shows and films. Which is better? Obviously, both obviously have their merits and there’s more than enough room for both, but a TV series’ strength is the time that it has to mould, shape and develop its characters. Shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men can take their time to build an audiences’ connection with a character, and then to show the arc that character goes though over the course of a few seasons. Films have the pressure of doing the same job in a much shorter run time. I’ve always appreciated the skill required to do so without it ever feeling rushed, and have always felt those making films have it much harder when it comes to character development. Hell or High Water has a relatively average run time of 102 minutes, and the most striking thing you notice when watching it is how slow paced the story telling is. Shots linger, dialogue is mulled over and patiently delivered, and yet this doesn’t feel a long film at all. In fact, it’s a film I never wanted to end. The shots are too stunning, the characters too interesting, the dialogue too sharp, and the score too perfectly placed for that. I really enjoyed the pacing of this film, and it was a refreshing change to the norm.

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Captain Kirk aside, I have yet to be convinced by Chris Pine. As the subdued and reserved half of the Howard brother double team here though, he was absolutely superb (if a little bit too ‘pretty’ for the world he inhabited). His character Toby is focussed on the end goal, while his reckless brother Tanner is more interested in the ride itself. There is a reason behind the run of bank jobs they have planned out (hinted at by the title’s multiple meanings) and although that obviously hinges on money, it’s their duty and responsibility to family that drives them to it. The theme of money, banks, and poverty is one that runs right throughout the film. Whether it’s the abandoned houses and ‘for sale signs’ they drive past, or the financial struggles of multiple minor characters, there is a constant reminder of the plight of many. Gil Birmingham’s Alberto even compares the robbery of land from native Indians to the daylight robbery of people by the banks, and many characters seem to show a certain level of sympathy for the brothers’ actions even if it is an inconvenience to themselves.

I really enjoyed Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and thought he was terrifying in that. His Tanner Howard’s unpredictability is similarly uneasy, but also funny (thankfully) in equal measure. The Howard brothers make an entertaining pair matched only by the film’s other double act, Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Birmingham). These Texas Ranger partners find common ground in trading insults to one each other, but there’s an underlying respect there. You would happily watch either of the film’s double acts in their own spin offs, and it leaves you struggling to pick a side. You’re not sure who to root for, and although that says a lot for the characters created, it also left me on edge come the inevitable confrontation finale(s).

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Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ brilliant original score work in perfect harmony with the world the characters inhabit. That world is one of stunningly bleak backdrops, fascinating characters (major and minor), and real life struggles. Despite that strong theme of poverty and desperation I actually found the film a lot more accessible than the trailer seemed to portray. There are lots of laugh out loud moments, with a T-bone steak enthusiast of a waitress in particular bringing the whole house down. I found character morals, motives and relationships totally absorbing and I can’t wait to buy the DVD when it’s out and watch it again.


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