For decades the genre of western films was an industry in its own right. There would be multiple westerns put out every year and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars ever are known for all their great western roles, actors such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. Within the last 30 years or so, the genre has become very scarce when it comes to new films. At best there is one or maybe two new westerns a year and the chances of those being very good are slim. With that said in the past couple years there has been somewhat of a resurgence in the genre. Although it is a small one its picking up momentum with projects like Antoine Fuqua’s reboot of the classic The Magnificent Seven and the HBO new series inspired by the 1973 Michael Crichton film, Westworld. Last year Kurt Russell starred in the indie thriller Bone Tomahawk which definitely turned some heads.
That brings us to this year and a new look and way of having EVERYTHING we have come to love about western movies and with a completely new eye that they can be seen through. David Mackenzie, a director from Cambridge, England that you more than likely haven’t heard of, has completely turned the western genre on its head with his new film, He’ll Or High Water. Mackenzie has taken a classic western tale and perfectly infused it with a modern element. With a legend such as Jeff Bridges, who himself is no stranger to the western, gives the movie its anchor. Ben Foster, also not a stranger to the western (see 3:10 To Yuma) is everything you want in a classic outlaw.
Brothers Tanner (Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) set out on a series of bank robberies in order to gain enough money to save the family ranch from becoming the property of the same bank that held their dying mother under their thumb. Tanner is the older and career criminal of the two brothers and Toby is the smart one who stayed clean and remained loyal to the family. After they rob their first two banks in one day, they become the target of soon to be retired Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges). Hamilton and his partner pick up their trail thanks to the years of instinct and expertise. Tanner and Toby have decided to rob the money from various branches of the same bank that is trying to take the ranch from the family which has newly discovered oil on it. Toby is doing all this so that he can give everything to his two sons so that they can have a better future and life he ever had.
Mackenzie has woven a very simple Robin Hood/cops and robbers type outlaw story and made it so compelling it is near impossible to look away and not be fully engrossed from the opening frame to the last. Melded with occasional humor, sentimental brotherly love at times and action and intensity. With the aspects and the mindset of a classic western where the getaway horses are a late model Camaro you feel that Wyatt Earp could show up at any minute and it wouldn’t feel out of place at all.
Ben Foster was one of the surprise performances when he played the gunslinger Charlie Prince in 2007’s 3:10 To Yuma alongside Russell Crowe. He seemed right at home as an outlaw thief in the old west. For as much as I enjoyed him in Yuma, his turn as Tanner is nothing short of wonderful. This is the first performance I’ve seen this year where the words “Oscar nomination” seemed to but shouting at me through the whole movie.
Jeff Bridges is right at home as the aging lawman who never gives up chasing the bad guy. His performance is also superb and is one of HIS five best performances ever. Rounding out the main stars is Chris Pine as Toby. Pine has become known most recently for playing Captain Kirk in the new series of Star Trek movies as well as for his striking good looks (remember Tina Fey, professing her love for him when she co-hosted the Golden Globes). Pine also plays the best role of his career to this point. He is perfectly cast as a worn out father and former husband who was never rewarded for living a good life. He is the outlaw you can’t help but root for and want to see get away.
When it comes to the state of the western genre in Hollywood, it may never return to the glory days of John Ford and Sergio Leone but with films like this and visions like that of writer Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie it may just get the resurgence it needs.