I never liked John Wayne.
As a film student, one of the first movies that nearly every professor has us watch is The Searchers, which is widely known as the best Western ever made. There's no denying its technical prowess, but something about old Westerns always bothered me.
The driving forces behind their existence are misguided at best and sinister at worst. Imperialistic attitudes such as "manifest destiny" and the vilification of Native Americans get their narrative wheels spinning; they celebrate a side of American history that all but the white man would like to forget. As the essential documentary Reel Injun revealed, classic Westerns prompted Native American children to cheer on their own people's cinematic slaughter.
For a genre ruled by themes of justice, it seemed rather unjust. Hell or High Water flips that all on its head, subverting expectations to redeem and reinvent the Western genre for a new generation. It accomplishes this through expert relation of its message, naturalistic performances, and one of the best screenplays of the year.
Hell or High Water picks up with two brothers- played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster- robbing a small bank in the heart of rural Texas. Even through ski masks, you can tell that one brother is experienced while the other is quite the opposite. They grab their contraband cash and head on to the next bank, but while Toby and Tanner banter in the getaway car, the film elucidates both their deeper purpose and its own.
The screenplay demonstrates its subtle flourishes early in its expositional stage: it lives and dies by the "show, don't tell" rule as background narrative is divulged through character and visuals rather than flat out telling the audience what has set the crime spree in motion.
The second and third acts have an even more impressive game to play. Taylor Sheridan- who made his screenwriting debut with last year's equally genre-disrupting Sicario- knows that every great story requires great context, and so he sets out to rewrite the Western context in order to more realistically represent the world we live in today.
Hell or High Water isn't modern just in setting: it's keen to remind us that our new world has left a lot of people behind. In a time of fancy cell phones and millennials driving muscle cars (both of which pop up on rare occasions to check our privilege), there are also lower and middle class families that have been screwed over by big banks; there are loved ones dying because they cannot afford healthcare; there are old folks who can't risk retirement.
This is a world of injustice that a new kind of Western can strive for justice within. This is the Texas of Hell or High Water. A morally confused, desperate land in which we are all criminals and all victims.
More than once, Sheridan makes this subtextual point far too obvious, which is frustrating given how gently he lays the societal blueprint elsewhere. But overall the story's underlying motive is conveyed with pointed grace.
And that's just the context. The foreground story of Hell or High Water mostly consists of two cops (Jeff Bridges in bumbling fine form as usual, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's Gil Birmingham as his Comanche partner) chasing down Toby and Tanner. The thrills are captivating; the partnerships convincing. Director David Mackenzie seamlessly stitches together the old and the new, giving Sheridan's message a place to flourish while also providing a recognizable country twang to fill out the movie's tone.
And the dialogue. Oh, the glorious dialogue. Like a more grounded combination of Tarantino's conversation diversity and the Coen brothers' sullen determinism, Sheridan's screenplay shines with words that gleam comedy and emotion alike.
So much works to great effect in Hell or High Water that I almost forgot to mention Pine and Foster's central performances. They inhabit the world so naturally that it's hard to remember they are actors playing characters. That is how involving the film is. It's a must-see during a year full of passable failures, and a worthy addition to the neo-Western name.