Glance at the parched world of Hell or High Water, the new film from director David Mackenzie, and all will look like a Western should: slow-cooked Texas, a pair of desperados, a trail of robbed banks, a wry and weary sheriff. But let the film sit with you and soon it seems like a ghost story too, the cattle whittled down to skin and bone, a rusted windmill creaking. “These boys are on their own,” says the sheriff, watching a spectral band of ranchers vanish into a dust storm. He is played by Jeff Bridges, which gives you your first reason to go and see it. There will be more.
On their own too are the outlaws, each trying to settle up with the past. They are brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). When we meet them, the pair are staring out from behind black ski masks in the course of their first hold-up, the beauty of the scene that we know them before we’ve even seen their faces: Tanner a buzzsaw of violence, Toby measured, only here on business. But their dynamic may not be quite what you might think: we learn that the short-fuse jailbird Tanner has been talked into the crime spree by his younger brother, the first upended expectation in a film loaded with them.
“Bopped you in the old schnozzola did they?” Bridges asks the luckless manager of that first small-town bank, and there is levity here, as well as a jolt to the shoot-outs and car chases. But in the background of Mackenzie’s film is a keening: a sad panorama of abandoned ranches, economic loss marking up the country no less than it did the Oklahoma of John Steinbeck. The script is written by a former actor, Taylor Sheridan, which you might guess from the pristine lines he hands the cast. Less expected, perhaps, is the skill with which grand themes — land and oil — are stitched into the human drama.
The reward is a string of fiercely live performances: Pine in particular is startlingly good, his square-jawed persona cut with something bruised and bleak. For Mackenzie, a British filmmaker whose career to date has been nomadic, the movie feels like finally finding the right key for a lock. Shooting against that empty blue Texan sky, he glides between moods: plaintive, then wildcat, and then, in this bloody elegy to closed-down towns, reminding us that death comes fast and sudden.