Dust to Dust

Film review: Hell or High Water (Director: David Mackenzie)

By Sascha Krieger

The skies are pale and blue, the country wide and dusty, melancholic Nick-Cave written tunes and the longing of country music fill the air. In this environment, two men are robbing banks. Well-planned, fast, efficient, with just the tiniest bit of gratuitous violence. David Mackenzie takes the viewer straight into the story as we watch the pair, two brothers, we soon find out, go about their business. Ben Foster plays the older one, a volatile ex-convict with little future to speak of. Chris Pine is the earnest, quiet younger brother. When he speaks, there is authority, depth and sadness. A beaten man not allowing himself to be defeated before he hasn’t provided for the next generation. This is the heart of what Donald Trump likes to call the forgotten America: a downtrodden world of dust and desolation, poverty and hopelessness. People struggling to make ends meet and being robbed by the banks. So they’re striking back, not as modern Robin Hoods but to rescue their own livelihood, to save some remnant of dignity and create hope for those that come after them.

Hell or High Water is a thriller, a neo-Western, a road movie. Its star are the West Texas plains, sunny and cold, wide and empty, barren and derelict. And full of lost souls. The brothers Toby and Tanner are two of them, Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges as a man who’s seen it all but refuses to despair, is another. Close to his retirement, he takes on the case with diligence, stubbornness and an undefeatable remnant of the desire for justice. They will meet in the end in a scene that is as quite and open and unspectacularly haunting as the West Texas plains.  But before this the bothers will rob and the ranger will hunt. Despite all the action, despite the level of suspense as the reason why Toby and Tanner do what they do is only revealed quite late and in little more than a footnote, the film moves along at a quiet pace, the pace of resignation, of the acceptance than things are the way they are and that change can only be small, temporary and personal.

Scottish film maker David Mackenzie has created a thriller that has the narrative structure, pace and feel of a neo- or post-Western. In all characters, there is a sense of inevitability, of having no choice. At one point Toby (Pine) tells his teenage son that he might be hearing terrible things about his father in the future. When the boy replies he won’t believe them, his father tells him to believe everything he’ll hear, that he’s done all these things. When the world is after you, when the game is rigged against you, you may end up doing evil in order to do good. Not only in the film many seem to agree. Toby and Tanner’s crusade might appear to be against an anonymous, cruel and heartless system built to hold them down but it is mostly for themselves, the kids‘ future, that tiny glimmer of hope that things might get better. There is a quiet dry humour to this film that makes it feel lighter than you’d expect. A laconic, anti-climactic yet quietly intense ending reinforces the humaneness, the raw tenderness with which Hell or High Water looks at the forgotten as well as the tension, the struggles that remain. When the world becomes guilty against you how do you remain innocent, it asks. It has no answer. Except maybe to the question why some of the many Americas the formerly United states have splintered into are behaving the way they do. In the end, there are no riding into the sunset and no heroic death. Just men dying in a most unheroic way and others standing steady. Amid the dust that they are.

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