I can’t say that I’m the biggest Western fan out there, nor was I someone who was concerned by the recent disappearance of the genre over the last 20 years to the occasional remake (the likes of True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma) or stylised variation (Bone Tomohawk and Django Unchained). The main problem I had was that the genre had stagnated. Even though you have films like the fantastic No Country for Old Men which brings the virtues and feel of the Western to the modern day, not many others have done it well. Then comes Hell or High Water, a film I was excited about but did not expect it to live up to the hype. Yet now I have a new love for the genre, its rich and meaningful history and most importantly its place in the current time. All thanks to this movie.
For narrative sake, Hell or High Water follows two brothers; a divorced dad and an ex-con who resort to robbing banks in order to save their family ranch in West Texas. By doing so, they save the rich land for Toby’s (Chris Pine) kids, and offer some redemption for his brother Tanner (Ben Foster). Tasked to finding the two is Marcus, a Texas ranger who is out for his last bust before retirement finally hits, a thought worse than death.
There’s plenty to compliment here on so many levels. On the surface the narrative is solid. Both Foster and Pine give performances of their life, with Pine especially giving off a subtlety and subdued portrayal that I never thought was in him. With some perfect dialogue to play with, the two play off each other effortlessly and with that their plight quickly becomes understandable and sympathetic. Outside of the two, Jeff Bridges is at his unmistakable best in a role that sold the film to me. His character, one struggling to adjust, perfectly summed up this film’s importance how even in the harshness of the West there remains an unmistakable allure about it all.
Over and over the film brings attention to its place in modern times, how the way of West still exists for some but it’s a way many are trying to escape. The only reason they are stuck in this age of bewildering change is because they have fallen on difficult times, as is the case with the two brothers. Like we have seen so often in the classic Western films, the two are stuck walking the blurry line between right and wrong in the quest for escape. However, unlike those classic films, Hell or High Water is cemented in reality, where no classic Hollywood schmaltz can paint a happy ending.
That’s because the American dream is something seldom preached about these days, especially when you compare that to the times of the American frontier and then again to the 1950’s and 1960’s where Western films made their mark. Comparatively, the modern western is stuck in a period of rugged transition, a period perfectly encapsulated so often in Hell or High Water. At one point Toby confronts his son about his plan to give him his family land, in hopes that the revenue from it will help him avoid a life his father lived, a western life. Just the two sat next to each other flaunts the contrast between Old West and modern age that is both striking and beautiful to watch.
I have not yet stopped thinking about this film since seeing it last Thursday, and with that I have a reinvigorated love for the Western. Hell or High Water is entertaining, beautifully written and perfectly directed, but more importantly, thematically it places itself on the cinematic timeline for its representation of the Western in the modern day. Though it’s early days, Hell or High Water has the potential to be looked upon one day as an iconic American tale, one that is as enjoyable as it is important.