Even if the genre isn’t your thing, you’ve got to admit that there’s no movie experience quite like a good Western. Even before the invention of film—heck, before the era itself was even over—storytellers were instinctively drawn to the Old West, whose natural splendor and violent, individualistic culture lent themselves so easily to tales of adventure, romance, and redemption. Film, with its newly sophisticated visual component, was an ideal medium for these stories from the very beginning; indeed, one of the earliest and most innovative narrative films, The Great Train Robbery in 1903, was a Western (actually filmed in rural New Jersey, but the history of cinema is full of funky twists like that). Having been a defining fixture of film for its entire history, the genre has evolved in all sorts of directions over the decades. Most famously, the ‘Revisionist Westerns’ of the early 60s eschewed the simplistic (and often grotesquely racist) heroes-and-villains morality of the earlier classics, in favor of the more complex characters and nuanced explorations of violence that any honest depiction of the Old West, even the deeply mythologized Old West of cinema, demands.
At the same time, the Western has also produced many fascinating offshoots, as its defining elements have been creatively reimagined and reworked into all manner of other contexts, from martial arts to screwball comedy to outer space. And while I’m hardly well-versed in all of these, one of the offshoots I find most interesting (despite being one of the least conceptually far-out) is the Contemporary Western, more succinctly known as the Neo-Western, which depicts the modern world through the lens of this most traditional of genres. Wikipedia describes it with characteristic efficiency: “these films have contemporary U.S. settings, and they utilize Old West themes and motifs (a rebellious anti-hero, open plains and desert landscapes, and gunfights). … For the most part, they still take place in the American West and reveal the progression of the Old West mentality into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”[i] They’ve actually existed for decades, but they’ve seen a notable resurgence of interest beginning around the time of the Coen Brothers’ masterful No Country for Old Men in 2007. Neo-Western influence has shown up in all sorts of disparate works, from tragic gay romance (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) to superhero flick (Logan, 2017) to gangster crime saga in the great series Breaking Bad (2008-2013).
But if you had to pick out one artist who best defines the 21st-century Neo-Western, it would certainly be Taylor Sheridan, a steadily rising star in Hollywood who has established a compelling creative home in the contemporary West.[ii] He started out as an actor, eventually landing a supporting role as a cop in the first few seasons of Sons of Anarchy—itself a Neo-Western in many respects. But then, still struggling to make a decent living and recognizing that his acting career was unlikely to rise much further, Sheridan refocused his energies on screenwriting, where he found considerably more success. (He had compelling stories to tell, as it turned out, his acting experience had given him an especially keen sense of what to avoid.) In the past decade, he has written three officially unconnected movies that nevertheless form a kind of thematic trilogy, exploring classic Western themes of revenge, remorse, and frontier justice in the 21st century: Sicario (2015), about the ghastly drug war along the border with Mexico; Hell or High Water (2016), about two brothers on a bank-robbing spree; and Wind River (2017), a murder mystery set on a Native American Reservation that marked his directorial debut.[iii]
All three are excellent, but for me, Hell or High Water is undoubtedly the best, partly because it’s inherently the least bleak, and partly because its engagement with classic Western conventions is the clearest and most thought-provoking. That isn’t to say the other two aren’t interesting takes on the genre, or that they should have been more lighthearted; Denis Villeneuve’s knack for creating near-mystically immersive onscreen dystopia was a great fit for Sicario’s descent into hell, and Sheridan, while he sometimes lacked the assurance of a seasoned director, treated Wind River’s subject matter with the grim seriousness that it deserved. But the ratio of ‘enjoyable viewing’ to ‘necessary viewing’ is easiest on the viewer in Hell or High Water, precisely because it hews closest to traditional Westerns, with the same qualities of thrilling action, hard-bitten wit, and alluring swagger that define the best of them. Like its two companion pieces, the movie deals passionately with serious, very contemporary issues, but at its core, as Ty Burr notes, “It’s just a lean little saga of two bank-robbing brothers and the aging hound dog of a lawman on their tail”—which could pretty well describe any number of old classics set back in the Old West.
And there may be no working screenwriter better suited to telling such a tale in the 21st century than Sheridan. He’s a naturally talented storyteller, and even more so than Sicario or Wind River, this story has to have been deeply personal for him; he grew up on a ranch near the tiny town of Cranfills Gap in central Texas, and his family lost the property in the economic recession of the early 90s. His work has always had a strong element of social conscience, focusing to an uncommon degree on victims of institutional neglect and oppression, and his intimate experience with this particular facet of such hardship is surely a major factor in Hell or High Water’s exceptional sense of sincerity and narrative confidence.
The movie also has an ideal director in David Mackenzie, a gifted Scotsman whose career so far may be best described as a committed, ongoing project of defying easy classification. He’s been around since the early 2000s, mostly making small independent dramas in the U.K. The streaming gods don’t deign to provide access to most of them, but even a cursory overview of Mackenzie’s filmography reveals a wide range of tones and genres, and movies that consistently mess with conventions within those genres. Case in point: his best-known works before this were Perfect Sense (2011), an intermittently captivating romance set in the midst of a pandemic that deprives people of their senses (and which is seriously weird to watch in the age of COVID-19), and Starred Up (2013), a brutal, relentlessly tense prison drama that’s also, somehow, more tender than you might think possible. What’s clear enough is that he’s a born filmmaker, bringing a distinctive cinematic vision to all sorts of disparate narrative contexts, and constantly seeking out new ones to try his hand at.
Continuing that pattern, Hell or High Water was unlike anything Mackenzie had done before, but he certainly had the skills to make it work, and he and Sheridan were clearly on the same page about what they wanted it to be. The result is a movie that’s exceptionally well-conceived, and equally well-executed in pretty much every way; every minute of its lean, sub-two-hour runtime carries an air of assurance that’s rare even among very good movies. (I’ve said essentially the same thing many times in previous articles, but I suppose that’s rather inevitable on a site devoted to exceptionally good movies; as Peter Rainer writes, “There’s a special pleasure in watching a movie that knows exactly what it’s after and then, in scene after scene, gets it.”[iv])
It starts with Sheridan’s script, which is tightly focused: funny but not silly, poignant but not overly sentimental, everything in it contributing in a substantive way to the development of plot, character, or larger themes. And Sheridan does so with remarkable efficiency, with almost every scene developing the story on multiple fronts. A single early scene, plus a few lines of dialogue in various later ones, give us a clear sense of the miserable family history underlying the unique bond between our bank-robbing brothers, Toby and Tanner. Much about the precise nature of their scheme is revealed mostly through the correct deductions of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton as he investigates the first few robberies—establishing his shrewd lawman’s instincts at the same time. What seems at first to be a standard innocuous, character-building stop at a diner ends up having major narrative and thematic significance as well. Sheridan also contrives some deliciously satisfying instances of dramatic irony, most of which arise so organically that they’re easy to miss on a first viewing. When Toby and Tanner find one of the small-town bank branches unexpectedly shuttered, it throws a tension-heightening wrench into their plan, but also ends up saving it; had the bank been open, they would’ve robbed it and then proceeded to the other small town where the Rangers lay in wait, rather than changing up the plan and robbing the bank in the larger town of Post. Meanwhile, Marcus’s decision to confiscate the outsized tip that Toby left at the diner, a harsh but procedurally justifiable move at the time, ultimately renders him unable to prove Toby’s involvement, as the indignant waitress and sympathetic diners steadfastly refuse to identify him after the fact. And of course, there’s the righteous irony at the heart of Toby and Tanner’s scheme, which pays off in the exhilarating penultimate scene, when Toby pays off the mortgage on the family’s ranch with the bank’s own money, then enlists them to manage the lucrative trust, ensuring that they have a financial incentive not to cooperate with the police investigation. In ways both large and small, this is just an exceptionally well-constructed story, with the various components fitting together and playing off each other beautifully.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie understands how to bring it all to the screen for maximum effect. The images that he and his longtime cinematographer Giles Nuttgens come up with are arresting but not ostentatious, capturing the harsh beauty of the setting in a precise, efficient way that rarely draws attention to itself. As in some of his earlier work, Mackenzie makes masterful use of the moving camera, tracking quickly but smoothly alongside the brothers as they rob the banks, their cars as they make their escapes, and eventually the lawmen as they give chase. As thrilling and ultimately violent as the movie is, the action in Hell or High Water is actually fairly understated; it’s all stuff that you could imagine real people doing in the real world, but lively camerawork and editing give it the kind of adrenalized, pulse-pounding momentum that we typically associate with more bombastic action cinema. Mackenzie is also adept at creating what might be called ‘micro-doses’ of tension that increase the excitement considerably. During the first robbery, the arrival of the bank manager is framed so that we see everyone: the man, the teller on the floor and the brothers lurking out of sight—getting maximum suspense out of the moment between him realizing that something’s wrong and the brothers raising their guns. When they bust into the last bank, Mackenzie almost seems to slow down time for a few seconds, emphasizing the brothers’ shock at how crowded the place is. The best of all comes near the end, when Toby seems to be in the clear after a nail-biting wait at a police roadblock, but then his car struggles to start, cranking the tension back up to an almost unbearable degree. A gripping sense of momentum also defines the movie as a whole, which is not to say that it’s constantly rushing headlong through the narrative. Indeed, most of the movie unfolds at a slower pace, with no action or stunts to speak of, but Mackenzie handles these scenes with the same sureness of touch, expertly attuned to the way each one can keep us engaged and move the story forward. The pacing varies widely, but it always feels right.
It’s often in these slower sections that another great strength of Hell or High Water shines through. Sheridan and Mackenzie understand that ‘no wasted moments’ is not the same as making every single moment ‘deliver’ one or another of the standard cinematic goods, like tension, comic relief, and emotional or thematic resonance. Like many great works of art, the movie is full of great moments that aren’t so much tense, consciously resonant, or outright funny as simply deeply satisfying—bits that just make you grin and think something like, “Ha, nice. Well done.” They pop up throughout the movie, often coming across through precise intonation of lines that would seem fairly unremarkable on paper. Think, for example, of the men Marcus questions in the diner, carefully tiptoeing around overt obstruction of justice while making sure not to provide any information of real value. Or Toby’s high school-age son refusing the beer he’s been offered, and the subtle but unmistakable pride in Toby’s reply: “Good boy.” My favorite may be the brief confrontation at the casino between Tanner and a Native American man who tells him that ‘Comanche’ means “enemies forever”; “Enemies with who?” Tanner counters, and the subtext fairly hums beneath the man’s perfectly delivered response: “Everyone.”
Such moments are closely related to (indeed, they mostly arise from) something else that the movie does exceptionally well. The setting is harsh in many ways—physically, socially, financially—but it doesn’t come across as a miserable wasteland. The people who live here are clearly struggling, but they’re not portrayed simply as wretched, nobly suffering victims. After all, hardship doesn’t quash the universal human capacities for wit, humor, yearning and all the other forms of vivid individuality—if anything, it accentuates them. So, as in many of the best Westerns, the protagonists in Hell or High Water encounter all sorts of quirky characters along their respective journeys. This makes the movie more entertaining (especially in depicting the outsized, hard-bitten Texas personality that the area is known for) and it must have been wonderful for the supporting actors, who get to do some real acting in bit roles that typically wouldn’t give them much to work with. I think of Dale Dickey as an acerbic bank teller who speculates, even at gunpoint, “Y’all are new at this, I reckon…” Or Kevin Wiggins as a local vigilante guides Marcus into position, then tries to take the shot at Tanner himself (“You’re pretty winded; oughta let me take the shot. Hell, it’s my gun!”). Sheridan himself turns up briefly as a cowboy fleeing a wildfire with his herd, marveling that he’s still doing this in the 21st century. Gregory Cruz makes a strong impression as the Native American poker player, while Nathaniel Augustson is briefly hilarious as an overcompensating thug at a gas station. And who could forget Margaret Bowman as one of the most gloriously cantankerous waitresses in film history, against whom even the brash Marcus wilts like an obedient child. Most memorable of all is her polar opposite: Katy Mixon as the diner waitress Jenny Ann, who, despite being several steps removed from conventional beauty standards, is so seductive when she flirts with Toby that it practically burns a hole in the screen. (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a throwaway line like “Bye” carry so much heat.) Sheridan and Mackenzie do a wonderful job with these characters, who are memorably colorful without crossing too far into caricature, making the social landscape vibrant in a way that feels true to life.
More significantly, the main characters are equally well-conceived and well-acted, with the four principal actors giving finely calibrated performances that make each one compelling in their own way. Chris Pine, known mostly for dashing roles like Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboots or the love interest Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, evinces a diminished, hollowed-out version of his movie-star magnetism, retreating to an impressive degree into the taciturn, worn-down Toby. Even as he explicitly says relatively little, he gives a detailed sense of who Toby is: a man of keen intelligence and deep feeling, yet who often seems to exist at a certain remove, compelled by years of disappointment and hardship to maintain a protective shield between himself and the world. In Pine’s nuanced performance, the character’s arc is clear and convincing—both his history as the ‘good’ brother who played it straight, and the acute desperation that drives him, like characters in many great Westerns, to take justice into his own hands.
Ben Foster is in more familiar territory, having already acquired something of a reputation for playing unhinged characters, but Tanner is still one of the most convincing portraits of a born hell-raiser to grace the screen in recent years. Foster gives the character the requisite air of danger, a palpable tension in his movements and edge in his voice, constantly threatening t0 boil over into violence. But he also captures the unique charisma of such a figure, grounding him in qualities that we might be able to recognize from people in our own lives. Most people aren’t so violent, of course, but I feel like many of us know someone at least a bit like Tanner: outsized personality, socially combustible, yet also enticingly self-assured, fiercely loyal to those they care about, and (ideally) self-aware enough to recognize their flaws and laugh about them. The way Tanner calls out, “Cold beer in the fridge!” upon entering the ramshackle trailer he calls home, speaks volumes about who he is and how comfortable he is in his own skin. Foster makes every moment count; coming from him, a simple “Fuck you, old man!” as the brothers make their escape is not only funny, but also gives us a sense of how much Tanner loves the thrill of the crime. That last part is important; as magnetic as Tanner often is, Foster and the filmmakers never lose sight of the fact that he’s a true menace to society, capable of horrific violence up to and including cold-blooded murder. His doomed last stand, in addition to being another interesting modern take on a staple of the Western, is also a satisfying fate for this complex character; he deserves to die, but he’s allowed to be blissfully, utterly in his element right up until the bullet finds his head.
These characters wouldn’t work nearly so well, however, if the relationship between them were not so convincing. Foster and Pine don’t look much alike, but they manage to be quite believable as brothers, capturing the unique rapport of men with a deep ancestral bond and a lifetime of shared experience, giving them unparalleled abilities to be mutually supportive and to get under each other’s skin. Each is a good foil for the other, with Tanner bringing out more lively sides of Toby that would otherwise stay hidden behind the mask of stoicism he presents to the world, and Toby bringing out tenderness and loyalty in Tanner that we’d likewise never see in other company—even as they struggle to openly express their emotions to one another. This gets at one of the few commonalities with Mackenzie’s previous movies, which, as Tasha Robinson writes, “similarly explore passionate but muted relationships, and the conflict between self-interest and sacrifice, especially among people too solemn and self-contained to talk through their feelings. In Mackenzie’s films, the macho need to create and sustain a personal image at any cost, keeps cropping up and complicating characters’ attempts to get what they want.”[v]
This applies even more directly to our protagonists on the other side of the law: Marcus Hamilton and his partner, Alberto Parker. The garrulous, larger-than-life Marcus may be inherently the easiest character to read, but there’s still a great deal of nuance in Jeff Bridges’ winning performance. Marcus’s swagger never quite slips into arrogance—partly because, as a talented Ranger coming to the end of a long and distinguished career, he’s earned it; and partly because Bridges conveys the underlying anxiety of a lawman well past his prime, coming up on forced retirement with his wife gone and no real idea of how he’s going to pass the time. By the same token, Marcus’s constant racist teasing of Alberto would seem simply abhorrent on paper, but Bridges lets us see that it’s not so much genuinely hateful as it is the result of an antiquated, repressive masculinity that precludes expressing affection too directly. Sheridan himself put it best: “I think that kind of casual racism comes from insecurity—guys who don’t know how to express their affection with each other, so they revert to these insults. They think it’s playful. But it creates a divide.”[vi] The movie doesn’t fully excuse it, but treats it as less actively harmful—when the chips are down, Marcus and Alberto have each other’s backs—than simply tragic: Marcus is only able to openly express his affection in the form of grief, after Alberto’s been killed.
Gil Birmingham is similarly compelling as Alberto, despite having somewhat less to work with. The character is less animated than Marcus, partly because of his more restrained (i.e. normal) personality and partly because his large family, ardent faith, and relative youth give him a much clearer sense of his place in the world. Birmingham strikes a tricky balance, giving Alberto that air reserved composure while also convincingly participating in the sardonic banter with Marcus. He never lets on how much Alberto is truly bothered by the casual racism, but he hits back with his own barbs about Marcus’s advanced age and outsized self-regard, which are more subtle but perhaps even more cutting since, as both men seem to recognize, they’re more rooted in truth. (I especially like how he keeps interrupting Marcus’s overblown explanation of where the final robbery is most likely to be.) The relationships between both pairs of protagonists are consistently entertaining and ultimately quite poignant, and they both represent interesting modern takes on Western trope of the mismatched gunfighter duo.
Meanwhile, as in any good Western, the physical setting becomes something of a major character in its own right. This is another of Mackenzie’s great strengths: an ability to imbue relatively normal spaces with a kind of visual and emotional charge, giving them an air of poetic grandeur without coming untethered from the real world. In Hell or High Water, he does so for the Texas prairies; the huge skies and sparsely populated landscapes are grounded in the present day, yet they have the same sort of mythic beauty as the frontiers of the Old West—a visual representation of how much and how little has changed. Wide shots of our characters driving across the empty plains aren’t so different from those of lone riders in the same environment. The hollowed-out downtown strips where the brothers stage the robberies aren’t so different from the dusty, forlorn villages in old Westerns. The ranch they’re trying to save has the same sense of far-flung isolation and rugged beauty as the homesteads of the old frontier. Nor is the connection purely visual; in one slightly histrionic but elegant speech, Alberto ties this very contemporary struggle into a larger cycle of plunder and exploitation reaching back to the beginning of human history. You might say that the movie’s topicality is a bit heavy-handed—one too many lines about the bank robbing the people, one too many shots of ‘For Sale’ signs and billboards advertising debt relief—but even that feels honest in its own way; the region is economically devastated, and you better believe people are vocally pissed off about it.
The movie also wrestles with the notion of vigilantism, a standard feature of the Old West with an uncertain status in the world of today. The fact that practically everyone seems to have a gun around here is largely comical at first, and rather exhilarating—a potentially catastrophic X factor humming beneath the surface of the robberies and other confrontations. Sheridan and Mackenzie suggest that in a sparsely populated region where law enforcement is often far away, such vigilantism may be technically justified, but not necessarily a good idea. For one thing, it’s based on a contradictory mindset: most people are happy to see someone sticking it to the banks, but equally eager to pull their guns if they have a chance to stop a robbery. Armed citizens do make things more difficult for the brothers, but they also markedly increase the violence; the two men who are killed in the final robbery likely wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t been armed. And they ultimately prove ineffective at actually stopping or apprehending the brothers—for those of a certain political persuasion, one of the most satisfying moments in the movie is when Tanner pulls out an assault rifle and obliterates the ‘good guy with a gun’ argument. And yet, the vigilantes are not totally useless, either, as they end up providing Marcus valuable assistance during the final shootout.
And of course, the brothers’ scheme is itself a form of vigilantism—righting an obvious wrong that can’t be remedied through legal means. In broad strokes, it’s easy to see justice in what they’re doing: using the bank’s own money to break out of the poverty induced by its predatory lending—all without the bank even knowing. And while the plan does succeed, it’s thematically crucial that people end up dying as a result, especially since one of the victims is someone we’ve come to care about. If only the other two had died, it wouldn’t have the same effect, because they’re inherently anonymous characters. The impact would be more diffuse, a general statement about the human cost that violence always exacts in the end, and the way even convincingly justified lawlessness ends up spiraling out and causing collateral damage. But when it takes Alberto as well, that makes the cost palpable in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise. One might criticize this as falling back on the tired stereotype of the doomed non-white character, and there’s something to that, but there’s also an important distinction: Alberto’s death is not the typical noble yet necessary sacrifice for the sake of white characters. Compared to the others, his death feels particularly needless; Tanner knows it’s the end of the line, but he can’t help taking as many people as possible with him. It makes the cost of violence sting on another level entirely, and forcefully reminds us that as charismatic and loyal as Tanner is, he’s never been a good person. Not to mention the fact that given the history of the region (and the genre fiction that loves it), it’s infuriating but perhaps grimly fitting that the Native American character ends up paying the highest price.
You wouldn’t mistake any given frame of Hell or High Water for a traditional Western, but it has the same enduringly compelling aesthetic, and explores the genre’s time-honored themes with as much insight as any old classic. Fittingly, the ending is as classically Western as it gets: a standoff between two gunfighters, rife with palpable tension, and with a conclusion even more satisfying than if they’d gone through with the shootout. In effect, it’s a whole complex moral argument contained in one brief exchange between Toby and Marcus. I did what I did for my family. Your partner got killed; you killed my brother in return. I can live with that; you say you can’t. So if you feel that strongly about it, come find me and let’s “finish this conversation.” That’s captivating stuff, the kind of fleshed-out, character-driven conflict that has defined the best Westerns for a hundred years—and it’s every bit as satisfying in the West of today as in the mythical West of yesteryear.
© Harrison Swan, 2020
[i] For a more detailed explanation, and an enticing list of the subgenre’s most famous examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_(genre)#Contemporary_Western_or_Neo-Western
[ii] This video essay is quite helpful in detailing how Sheridan’s work helps defines the Neo-Western: https://web.archive.org/web/20200412150608/https://theplaylist.net/taylor-sheridan-neo-western-20180102/
[iii] Sheridan also wrote the Sicario’s 2018 sequel, Day of the Soldado, but I wonder if that was something of a contractually obligated rush job, because it’s a definitive step down from his first three scripts, with an awkward mishmash narrative and queasily reactionary politics.
[vi] Get past the inane Oscar politics of the first several paragraphs, and this is a pretty interesting article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/arts/a-respected-film-a-vivid-script-an-oscar-chance.html