Two films I experienced recently stand outside of their genre: if you'll allow me the coinages, there was an Ur-Western in Slow West, and a post-Western in Hell Or High Water. The first with its idealistic younger-than-usual protagonist gazed over lush North America as Europe colonised it: the second has as its star a near-retiree, presiding over a Texas that's wasting away, short on cowboys and financially tight on the surface.
Jeff Bridges is grizzled, hard-as-nails folksy Sheriff Marcus Hamilton with a pin-sharp mind. Echoes of No Country for Old Men don't stop with him (where Tommy Lee Jones was weatherbeaten and tired, Bridges looks like... well, an old Dude) and pithy dialogue: Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are seemingly small-time crooks who move from town to town targeting small banks, and as with No Country, the law and the lawless don't meet for most of the film's duration. There's palpable tension, but not the edge-of-the-seat urgency that accompanied Javier Bardem's savage progress.
The tension here comes from how the audience is rooting for both sides - the brothers seem somehow righteous, zoning in on the banks that took advantage of their late mother, and intending to provide for Toby's estranged family. And the Sheriff and his partner (an equilibrious Gil Birmingham) have a close relationship, notwithstanding the knowingly un-PC slurs that pepper Bridges' banter. All four turn in great performances: I'd only previously seen Pine in roles owned by William Shatner, so it was great to see him bring gravity to his downcast, determined character. The brothers' relationship is marked by a sometimes worryingly brutal loyalty, Tanner the unfettered id to Toby's more grounded ego, but I appreciated how it makes me conflicted about the inevitable denouement.
Though the narrative arc is satisfying, the whole shebang may not sound superbly original. What lifts it is its view on the passage of time: visually interesting shots of pure Texan expanse, fields aflame and cowboys no longer passing on the family business. The landscape of this surface poverty is punctuated with oil pumpjacks, hinting at the rich reserves beneath. Also helping with this juxtaposed 'past & present' is a score by Warren Ellis & Nick Cave: elemental violins and a ponderous piano soundtrack the land's oldness, while ominous country songs commentate on its present. An early tracking shots shows three crosses painted on a wall and Iraq war references graffiti'd on another. It's effective. Plenty of levity is also found in the dialogue of older cast members: I didn't come to laugh but I was made to. Full credit to Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan.
In questioning my idea of what justice would look like, causing me to wonder at the expanse of the land and consider its history from the Native American point of view, it did what a Western should. It may be familiar, imperfectly edited, and set in a world in which Alison Bechdel hasn't been heard of, but Hell or High Water has something to say and says it compellingly.