The Texan expanse evokes a kind of fear, a certain sense of insecurity that only perhaps South Asian expatriates can truly relate to. We have lived all our lives in lands with high densities of population. Lands where such vast and uninhabited tracts of land are hard to come by. Lands where there is almost always somebody within an earshot. The same sense of insecurity I guess is also experienced by us when we move into a new single family home for the very first time and it is devoid of blinds (window shades) and the doors aren’t made out of solid wood. We feel like we are stark naked and are being watched constantly, like someone might invade the home, the sense of vulnerability envelops us and we wait miserably till the time the blinds are installed. We then continue to find an excuse to pull the blinds down at every opportunity.
To simmer in the brooding cauldron of westerns, frontier sagas or ones set in the wilderness is extremely unsettling as it is and then you fold in the element of intrigue and garnish it with a sprig of violent crime and the taste of it lingers for a while.
Hell or High Water isn’t quite a Coen Brothers punch in the face but the Scotsman David Mackenzie does manage to extract the very best out of his cast and crew and this makes for a memorable impression on celluloid. Jeff Bridges as the widower West Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement and one who has a void the size of Jupiter to fill delivers a belter that will be referenced I’m sure in acting schools as a template for playing a Texas ranger. The playful exchanges with his partner (Gil Birmingham) with Bridges peppering him with racial epithets wrapped in colloquial witticisms and the partner getting even with a powerful indictment of the white man’s atrocities on the Indians was funny (if you are able to look past the racial component) and damning in equal measure.
Chris Pine as the younger brother is rock solid and plays his part with absolute conviction. To use a cliche, he is easy, breezy, beautiful. The true standout in this movie though is Ben Foster who is magnificent in his rendition of the jailbird older brother with a short fuse, a big mouth and a penchant for living la vida loca. The emotion of the sibling bond is essayed marvelously and can’t be ignored.
Balls of melancholy get stuck in your throat when the visages of chronic poverty that wield a vice-like grip on many parts of rural America are portrayed on various faces starting from the brothers, to the diner waitress to the ramshackle main streets. The director also tries to slide in the subliminal message of the financial industry being the wolf in sheep’s clothing who is singularly responsible for the decline of small town America. And yes, the director cleverly weaves into the narrative the pervasive gun culture issue for the audience to ponder.
The climax is along expected lines and no surprises are in the offing here. The screenplay is seamless, the editing is crisp, the cinematography bewitching and the background score respects the tone and tenor of the moment at all times.
It is a powerful prosecution of the evils that hold America hostage by using the frailties of human character and societal apathy; the cinematic storytelling of which is arresting. A must watch.