The western genre is back, but completely different. At least, that’s how I felt walking out of Hell or High Water. The film was released nationally with little fanfare in late August, but stars big names like Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges.
Set in the heat of Texas, the plot follows a pair of brothers resolved to robbing every bank in a given area as well as the grizzled officer who wants nothing more than to bring them to justice. Directed expertly by David Mackenzie, there are tense shootouts and thrilling car chases, but the most resonant moments are the quiet, reflective, studies of modern America.
The movie opens with a slow series of images of a small town in Texas. It doesn’t quite matter where we are, at least not as much as when we are. The opening montage is a collection of foreclosed buildings, abandoned factories, and run-down communities. The through line of every character is one of both desperation and exhaustion. Even the people that are given one or two lines of dialogue as exposition express the sense of trodden suburban angst that nails the tone of what American civilization is capable of capturing.
Hell or High Water cleverly plays with the established expectations for a Western, almost to the point of parody. Jeff Bridges’ cop character is two weeks out from retirement, and is as respected as he is ridiculed within his ranks. The character could have been a vapid cliche, but is treated as a bleak, lonely remnant of a time long gone.
This treatment applies to the entire film’s view of the Western genre as a storytelling blueprint, both a love letter and eulogy to something long gone. It understands that the classics of the genre no longer apply to life in the modern age, but still inform our understanding of a certain time and place.
A disillusion of the fantasy that classic cowboy films created is what carries Hell or High Water in a bold direction. The story and its characters are grounded, treated with an oppressive attitude of realism. No one gets away scot-free by the end of the movie, regardless of whether they’re the ‘good guy’ or not. It’s a ‘never meet your heroes’ attitude, as well as an understanding that every action has consequences.
As a fan of those cowboy stories and spaghetti westerns, I loved every second of this film. The horses have been traded in for muscle cars, and the wild frontier has been tamed by corporate greed and county lines. Hell or High Water is a story about human nature, family bonds, and the inescapable nature of change. It is a gritty re-imagining of a classic idea, and finds something new in the dusty, dirty details of an old tale.