Hell or High Water – Review (Cannes Film Festival)

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In making Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie assembled so many great collaborators that it was almost impossible for it to be bad, and thankfully he didn’t manage to somehow defy the odds.

First up we have a witty and ideas heavy script from Taylor Sheridan, who previously wrote Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario; a score from none other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; and a cast of principal actors and supporting performances drawn from some of the brightest well known stars and damn fine character actors around.

The root of Hell or High Water is a cops and robbers story, with Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) playing the two cops attempting to hunt down bank robbers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Tanner has recently been released from prison and is the wild one, whilst Toby is more of a family man, and up until this point, has never broken the law. But he’s a man that’s been pushed too far.

Forced into a tight corner as a result of the death of his mother and a opportunistic and downright cruel move by Texas Midland Bank, he is set to lose his family’s ranch unless he gets $40,000 by the end of the week. So, he asks his brother to help him rob a series of banks – small bills from the drawers only – in order to raise the money, save the ranch and provide a future for his sons that he never had. The banks that the pair rob are, of course, branches of Texas Midland Bank, stealing money in order to pay it back into the same bank and save their land.

It’s a great hook narratively – it’s so damn fun, and encourages you to get behind the pair’s crime wave – but it’s also thematically rich, dipping into ideas surrounding the effects of the economic crash on Texas and the way in which it was those who already had so little that lost the most. Mackenzie also explores the history of Texas, particularly with regards to the way in which the Comanche were treated and their place in society today. That latter idea doesn’t wholly come together – the relationship between Marcus and his Comanche partner Alberto is emotionally effective, but lacks a little in exploring this idea – but it’s still added flavour to what is already rich and interesting stew.

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One issue with Hell or High Water though, is that there are a few too many times in which you can’t help but feel like you’re watching something you’ve seen before, with Mackenzie wearing his influences a little too clearly on his sleeve and reheating a few too many old and familiar ideas. He’s cribbing from the likes of the Coen Brothers though, so at least he’s pinching ideas and stylistic tropes from the best.

But there’s enough inventiveness in the script, and great performances from the assorted cast – characters who only appear for a few lines, played by the likes of Dale Dickey or Katy Mixon, frequently threaten to steal scenes – are more than enough to carry you past any sense that you’ve seen this all before. Hell or High Water is a fine little thriller, an enjoyable and smart cops and robber caper that sees David Mackenzie stretching himself as a filmmaker, and for the most part, not snapping under the strain.

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