The film noir movement of the 1940s and 1950s produced stories that were as dark and compelling as the chiaroscuro cinematography used to film them in glorious black and white. After the switch to almost exclusive color films in the 1960s, it took a while for the genre to regain its footing. Starting with Chinatown, noir was embraced more as a state of mind than a cinematography style. Even in the bright sunlight of Los Angeles, you could have black hearts, as the late Curtis Hanson showed with L.A. Confidential. Digital photography now allows films, such as Collateral and Nightcrawler, to look into deep shadows with clarity. Recently, though, two films written by the same screenwriter have taken noir to the dusty Southwest under its baking sun. Last year the excellent Sicario was released and garnered 3 Oscar nominations. Last month came the release of Hell or High Water.
Hell or High Water focuses on the Howard brothers as they go on a week-long bank robbery spree in West Texas. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) stands to lose the family farm to a reverse mortgage on Friday, following the death of his mother. He’s discovered the bank had knowledge about the property and stands to make a huge windfall from their small investment if he can’t pay off the debt. The thoughtful Toby recruits his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), a hellion who recently got out of prison, to help him raise the money by robbing branches of the bank holding the mortgage.
The thefts garner the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a crusty lawman who’s about to retire. He and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) take on the investigation. Marcus is dust-dry and unapologetically not politically correct, something that wears on the part-Comanche, part-Mexican Parker. But he’s also an experienced lawman with a feel for the case, and even as the brothers race between branches, Hamilton and Parker draw closer to them.
Ben Foster brings a wild, dangerous edge to the role of Tanner. He’s provided a mesmerizing presence in previous films like 3:10 to Yuma and Lone Survivor, and when he’s cast in a film it always ups the ante for the cast. On the opposite side, Jeff Bridges presents a perfect Texas demeanor with a drawl that sneaks out between lips that hardly separate when talking. (As I was once told by a Texan, it keeps the dust from blowing into your mouth.) But beneath the crustiness Bridges has an edge as sharp as Foster’s.
For Pine, this is a breakthrough role, moving him from film star to actor. It’s an interior, unflashy performance, but he vibrates with conviction. You see in him a good man who’s never had a break, finally pushed too far. But with that push, he also becomes even more dangerous than his brother. As Stephen Moffat put it, “Night will fall and drown the sun when a good man goes to war.”
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan began as an actor, including two-year stints on both “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.” He has a wonderful eye and ear for the small nuances of character that sparkle on the screen. There’s one scene with the Rangers in a diner that epitomizes the West Texas attitude perfectly. For his next movie, Wind River starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, Sheridan takes over the director’s chair in addition to writing the script. For Hell or High Water, the directing duties were filled by David Mackenzie. The journeyman English director makes a quantum leap with this film, beautifully capturing the wide-open barren landscape and the depressed small towns. He’s ably assisted by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, starting with a 360 degree opening shot leading to the first robbery.
The film captures the hard-boiled feel of the books of Jim Thompson. Born in Oklahoma, several of his novels such as “The Getaway” were set in the southwest. Later in life Thompson worked in Hollywood, with his best collaborations coming at the start on two Stanley Kubick films, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Both adaptations of The Getaway graphed on a happy ending that wasn’t in the book. Two of his books (“Pop. 1280” and “A Hell of a Woman”) were adapted as well-received French films: Serie Noire (1979) and Coup de torchon (1981). But the most faithful English-language adaptations of his books were 1990’s The Grifters and 2010’s The Killer Inside Me. Thompson would have recognized the Howard brothers as old friends.
The film hasn’t done a huge box office which is a shame, though it was made on a lean budget so it’s made a profit. If you like crime dramas that are well-done and the film’s still playing in your neighborhood make sure you check it out.