HELL OR HIGH WATER
(2016, David Mackenzie)
[4 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of © Madman Entertainment]
HELL OR HIGH WATER begins with a poorly planned robbery. It seemed smart on paper - rob banks immediately upon opening so that there are less people involved - but it comes with its own set of problems. Namely, the guy who can open the safe arriving a bit late to the party. Eventually though, they get the loot. But this isn't their only stop. That plan is to steal just enough money from different banks so they could pay back the money they owe to the banks. This isn’t robbing banks out of greed, or grand pursuits of the American dream - this is survival.
The movie paints a picture of contemporary American life. It is a dreary picture, emphasised by the extraordinarily well-established sense of place that director David Mackenzie, production designer, Tom Duffield and all the actors create. Every space, even if it is inhabited, feel empty, lonely and abandoned. This film takes place post-financial crisis. People have lost their homes and are struggling to get by. “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for folks like us” is graffitied on the side of a run-down building.
Every shot signals defeat and the people who populate these parts just trudge along. A highlight is a scene inside the “world famous T-Bone cafe” where the cheeky elderly waitress, played marvellously by Margaret Bowman, tells her customers exactly what they’re going to have (the T-Bone obviously) and not the other way around. This kind of obstinate, unyielding attitude is amusing - even slightly endearing - but is also tinged with hopelessness. A town becomes a ruin once it stops changing and many of the small West Texan towns that the robbers shoot through are unfortunately heading into this direction.
The film traverses many issues Americans are facing. It touches on the economy, gun culture and race but is never blatant about it. Against the backdrop of a robbery chase movie there lies a perceptive meditations on the failings and unsustainable contemporary American culture.
In this sense, HELL OR HIGH WATER is a timely film. Especially as America, and the world, prepares for one of the most important elections in recent memory. How exactly can America be great again?