Bank Robbers and Texas Rangers Clash in Hell or High Water

West Texas noir

It's a long way from the sandstone edifices of Glasgow, Scotland, to the dusty plateaus of West Texas, but it's a trip that made sense for British director David Mackenzie. He said, "Every filmmaker has a relationship in some way with American cinema," and with heist drama Hell or High Water, he crossed the Atlantic to connect the reality of modern Texas with what he called "the Texas of the imagination."

Hell or High Water follows two squabbling but bonded partnerships: Toby Howard (Star Trek's Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are robbing small-town banks, but with more than greed on their minds. Hard on their heels are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), weaving their unsure path toward justice.

That script, by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, is a gestalt of the most American genres: Western, road movie, buddy movie, bank heist, which Mackenzie called "part of anyone who loves movies' list of things to be attracted to." For Mackenzie, it fulfilled a filmmaking dream. He said, "I was in Alpine, Texas, a few years ago and loved it, and thought, 'I really want to make a film in this part of the world.' When I came across this script it was like, 'Well, okay, I can make sense of this.'"

Just as Bonnie and Clyde were running from the grinding harshness of the Great Depression, the Howard boys are caught between the bone-bleaching harshness of West Texas and a financial system hellbent on crushing the underdog. Those themes are summed up when the Rangers happen upon a rancher (played by scripter Sheridan) herding his cattle away from a grass fire. "It's where the film becomes a little more esoteric," Mackenzie said, "and starts moving away from the one thing that it is, a cops-and-robbers thing, and starts dealing with the themes of this part of the world: the relationship between landscape and nature and human intervention."

Mackenzie shot the movie as almost two separate films. First, Pine and Foster, shooting their scenes as close to chronologically as possible. Then, with minimal crossover, came Bridges and Birmingham – much like the Rangers, following in the robbers' footsteps. The end result, he said, was "two very different vibes. The first one sympathizing with the outlaws, shot very fast, very energized, and very much empathizing with their world. Then we had Jeff and Gil, the elder statesmen, a bit more slowly, a bit more relaxed."

Of course, shooting near Big Bend in midsummer meant the set could be described very simply. "Hot," Mackenzie said. "Hot and dusty. Also we had quite a lot of thunderstorms." However, dealing with the West Texas heat was a sacrifice the filmmaker was more than happy to make. "It felt ideal to be parched, to be in that rough environment."

Throughout, Mackenzie aimed for a very Seventies feel, with nods to "the freewheeling improvisers, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman." Sam Peckinpah's nihilism casts its shadow, as does brutal 1973 heist film Charley Varrick by Don Siegel ("I like the simple grittiness of his films.") And then there were three of Bridges' own films: Fat City, "for its aching humanity and following people whose lives are already far down a tragic path"; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, "which has a resonance to the outlaws on the run in the big country"; and an overt homage to The Last Picture Show. "It's set in Archer City, which is where our first bank robbery is set. Unfortunately, we didn't shoot there, but I went there and it looks exactly like it did when Jeff was there many, many years ago."

Hell or High Water opens Fri., Aug. 12. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Hell or High Water, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, David Mackenzie

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