Can nostalgia not mean a resurgence, but instead an end? David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (out today via Madman Films) is a 1970s cinema homage, a genre that has become more and more common over the past few years, exhibiting a particular penchant for Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. They’re a respite from a world overcomplicated and overpolished, where simple morals and conversations (no matter how peppered with bullets) reign free and people are untethered by handheld devices. But while Hell or High Water has more than a little admiration for the likes of Badlands and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, even nodding to star Jeff Bridges’s turn as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’s True Grit remake, Mackenzie’s nostalgia is not so much for rose-coloured desire but a death.
Rooster Cogburn, though, is now an eccentric and old-school police officer named Marcus Hamilton that stares at maps and stakes out, watching the world go by from the corner of another one-ditch town that only boasts a hotel to wander into when night falls, a bar to drown sorrows at, and a bank to rob. The job is a game – when the chase finally comes, he declares that it’s time for “some giddy up music” before whooping all the way to the reckoning – but also a lifestyle. Hamilton is a last man standing both literally and figuratively, a dying breed weeded out (with some relief) by age and modern day politics. He drops racist slurs at every turn, much to the chagrin of his Native American partner (Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham) who is waiting for their slow-burning chase of the South to end so Hamilton can no longer evade retirement.
The chase is for Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard, brothers robbing small banks for small bills in a desperate search for money to ensure their mother’s ranch stays in the family. The rest of the town has been bought out, kicked out, with barely a soul lining the streets, land stolen in the name of progress. Police take much-needed mortgage money as evidence, shreds of security snatched. “Poverty it’s like a disease, spreads from generation to generation. But not my boys,” Toby says when asked of why he’s fighting for the ranch. But who gets left with the smoking gun?
The film is set in the present, with brief glimpses of iPhones and desktop computers, but neither could play less into the narrative. It’s a corner of the world stuck in a time warp and slowly disappearing into the new, a preserved corner of a lifestyle extinct. The land and the banks are kicking them out, a way of life is ending, one that was built on theft of homes to begin with. “These folks’s grandparents took it from my people, now it’s being taken from them. Except now it’s them sort of people there,” Parker says, gesturing to the bank on the corner of town.
Nostalgia is usually a tool to get viewers to accept the past, politics and all, but here it’s a critique and a swan song. That’s not to say Hell or High Water is self-serious or downbeat, like Sheridan’s previous writing effort Sicario. It’s sharper and funnier, a guilt-free heart-pounder that moves efficiently and effortlessly through its 90-or-so minutes. True to many of his other roles recently, Foster is captivatingly unhinged as Tanner, a man with no brains and little to lose. He’s (at least at first) the striker to Pine’s match, an up-and-coming male lead quietly amassing a filmography of everything from Sondheim (Into the Woods) to Star Trek.
You’ve seen this movie before, about a land where bullets are treated like candy and men speak in drawling single-syllables. Mackenzie’s film, a brief firecracker of guilt-free cheese, may not offer up a new take but it nonetheless is satisfying. Are there any more people like Hamilton, and should we be yearning for them, charismatic bastions of regressive politics? This is the end, and it’s one that dies in a blaze of glory.