Texas Showdown: David Mackenzie turns to crime genre with ‘Hell or High Water’

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Poverty is a disease that’s dogged the family of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) for generations, and it’s only about to get worse. With their mother barely cold in her grave, Texas Midlands Bank—which, the audience is told, “loaned just enough to keep your mama poor”—is days out from swooping in to foreclose on the family ranch, which should by all rights be Toby’s children’s inheritance.

There’s only one solution for law-abiding Toby and ex-convict Tanner: steal enough from Texas Midlands branches to be able to pay the bank back with their own money, even if doing so puts a pair of Texas marshals—played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham—on their tail. So it goes in modern-day western Hell or High Water, the ninth feature film from prolific Scottish director David Mackenzie, which CBS Films opens in select theatres on August 12 and nationwide on August 19.

A favored phrase used by Mackenzie in describing the setting of his latest is “a West Texas of the imagination”—a reference to the fact that, though the world of Hell or High Water has all the highways, gas station convenience stores and casinos that you’d expect in 2016, it also does double duty as a sort of mythical version of the American West.

Tiny, out-of-the way-towns are slowly deprived of their lifeblood and absorbed by more modern metropolises, or else left to die. A rancher leading his herd away from a brushfire bemoans how out of place his profession is in the 21st century and says it’s no wonder his son has no interest in following his father’s path. Cowpokes in well-worn clothes and cowboy hats while away their time in diners, as the bank slowly leeches them of what little money they’re able to earn.

“A love story to the disappearing West is very much at the heart of the film,” Mackenzie says. In that way, Hell or High Water is similar to the revisionist ’70s westerns that Mackenzie grew up with, and that served as a key inspiration for his work on this film. “There’s a flavor of that, a DNA of quite a lot of humanistic 1970s movies,” he explains. “There’s a widely felt sense”—in our current political landscape, in classic westerns and in the Old West itself—“that people feel that the institutions that they used to trust are not necessarily serving their interest and are maybe not worthy of that trust. And a question of how people can empower themselves within that system. The film taps into that sense of dislocation, as it were.”

Thus, though Mackenzie calls Hell or High Water a political film, he argues that “it’s not a political polemic”—it prefers to “swim in the water of these big [western] themes: the economic depression, family, guns, oil,” rather than make judgment calls. Scripted by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water presents a “moral grey area” where neither the outlaw brothers nor the Rangers hunting them are either wholly good or bad. Marcus (Bridges, the obvious and perfect choice for a gruff Ranger nearing his dreaded retirement) is “a bit racist,” constantly needling his partner Alberto (Birmingham) for his Native American and Hispanic origin. And while Toby and Tanner are far from being “sweet teddy bears”—Tanner, in particular, is violently unhinged and holds no compunctions about any casualties his crime spree might rack up—their intentions are understandable, even noble. After all, “There’s a long line of outlaw identification in western films; think about The Wild Bunch, where you’re hanging out with the bad boys. That’s something that audiences can connect with.” Mackenzie cites a line from Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”: “You won’t never see an outlaw / Drive a family from their home.”

Though Hell or High Water is set in Texas—the brothers’ first robbery, in fact, takes place in Archer City, where The Last Picture Show was filmed—most of the film was shot just across the border in Clovis, New Mexico, that state having better financial incentives than its Lone Star sibling. Mackenzie describes every film he makes as a reaction to the one before it, and that’s certainly the case here: From the oppressively claustrophobic prison that served as the setting for the excellent Starred Up, in which a violent teenager connects with his convict father after being “starred up” to an adult prison, we move to wide-open vistas and an endless sky. “To some Americans, some areas of the Midwest can seem depressing or empty. But [DP] Giles [Nuttgens] and I found it very gorgeous,” Mackenzie says. “Even in its direness, it’s stunning. I’m always trying to avoid making things over-beautiful, because there was already a lot of beauty that I saw on what we shot.”

The harsh beauty of Hell or High Water is populated by—per screenwriter Sheridan, via Mackenzie—“a Greek chorus of aspects of the West.” There’s the tough-as-nails waitress who refuses to cook a steak medium rare and still can’t get over the fact that some New Yorker tried to order trout back in the ’80s. There’s the bubbly yet steely waitress who refuses to cooperate with Marcus by turning in as evidence the $200 in stolen money that Toby gave her as a tip. There’s the grizzled old-timer who pulls out his pistol—“You got a gun on you, old man?” “Damn right I got a gun on me.”—and fires at Toby and Tanner in the parking lot after one of their early robberies. Each of these characters has one scene, maybe two, and yet they’re essential to establishing the story. “Everybody talks about it being a western,” Mackenzie argues, but in its episodic quality, “it is also very much a road-trip, buddy movie.”

Accompanying this crime-fueled road trip is a score by musician/composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Already fans of theirs, Mackenzie and editor Jake Roberts used a temp score pulled from the duo’s previous work—which, on the film side, includes The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road—before figuring, hey, we might as well send the rough cut and see what they say. The result is, in Mackenzie’s words, “epic, but not bombastic. Not over-manipulative.” As coincidence would have it, that’s also the perfect way to describe the film it accompanies.