Hell or High Water opens with a bank robbery and an announcement that this is no ordinary heist thriller—the message "three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us" is shown spray-painted on the bank's wall. That's the first sign we get the film is a throwback to the 1970s era of American moviemaking, when even genre films reflected the cultural and political tumult of the times.
Director David MacKenzie, a Scotsman whose impeccable, often freewheeling use of film craft and ability to coax intimate, memorable performances in films like 2007's Mister Foe and 2013's Starred Up have made him a filmmaker to watch, has done more than merely survive the transition to the American west that trips up so many star European directors (anyone remember Stephen Frears's The Hi-Lo Country? How about Alex Cox's The Searchers 2.0? I thought not). Instead, he has emerged with what is perhaps the best American crime movie of the year.
"I was thinking a lot about the 1970s," MacKenzie told VICE, discussing that era's penchant for genre-bending films with politically engaged themes. "It's a road movie, it's a buddy movie, it's a western—all at once." It's also a showcase for Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges—all of whom turn in roles that deserve attention come awards season.
"This ambiguity that the script has about what is right here, who is right and who is wrong, that was very interesting to me," Jeff Bridges said of what attracted him to the role of Marcus, a Texas Ranger weeks away from an unwanted retirement. Marcus, along with his longtime partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Native American he aggressively taunts in a definitively non-PC, racially explosive sort of way, are trying to solve a string of robberies. On the flip side of the narrative is a pair of brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), down-on-their-luck country boys who decide to pay off the bank that has unfairly foreclosed on their family's farm by robbing it over and over.
"To work amidst all that vastness was really special," said MacKenzie, whose New Mexico–shot desert chase sequences capture a grandeur that is matched by the film's colloquial authenticity. Its best scene, a comic sequence involving a very demanding waitress at a small-town restaurant that only serves one dish, drives home just how versatile MacKenzie is as a director. He can take you from a moment like that—all rangy comedic looks from gray-mustached Bridges and the waitress Margaret Bowman—to an action sequence suffused with the kinetic energy and moral seriousness of vintage Michael Mann and Akira Kurosawa.
"I do my best not to make movies, but when a script and an opportunity crosses my path like this one, it's just too cool to pass up," Bridges said about Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan's screenplay. Citing the authenticity that Sherdian, the son of a Texas lawman, brings to his work, Bridges suggested that his relationship with recently deceased former Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, author of One Ranger: A Memoir, was instrumental in him finding the character. "I look inside myself and think what aspects of myself might be handy for this part."
Where Sicario was perhaps a touch grimmer, both films reflect the anxiety and moral uncertainty of our politically and economically stratified era. Many of the characters Marcus meets on the way to reckoning with the criminals, speak to a yearning for a better, fairer America, one where these crimes wouldn't be necessary. "Bank been robbing me for 30 years,"one witness explains.
"You have the law on the side of the banks; it's not right to rob banks," Bridges mused as our time wound down. "But is it right for banks to lend money to people they know can't possibly pay it back in order to score their oil-rich land? That doesn't seem right either."
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Hell or High Water is now playing in theaters nationwide.