Film

David Mackenzie: "There was a sense of dispossession in middle America"

An old-fashioned, raw, entertaining heist thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, Hell or High Water tapped into discord in a part of the US often ignored. Director David Mackenzie hopes that more films will actually be about something in 2017...

Hell or High Water has been called a modern day Western. It is set in West Texas, but apart from the setting, it explores morality, justice, civilisation – all themes of the genre…

I always think about Westerns being about people seeking a fresh chance. It’s a tabula rasa; people coming from the old world into the new world trying to get their piece of paradise. I never thought about it being a neo-Western while making it, I thought of it as a contemporary American drama about the reality of that place here and now.

The reality of America here and now is something mainstream films often overlook.

With the American election, there is that sense that part of middle America was being ignored by the so-called liberal elite. We were obviously unaware of what was going to happen when we shot the film a year and a half ago but it was tangible that there was a sense of dispossession in that part of the world. These people are very different to those in the big coastal cities, which is where most of the movies get at least conceived if not made so that part of the world is being reflected less.

Is a consequence of that – perhaps not the rise of Trump – but a reinforcement of the disconnect between people and being unaware of those dissatisfied with the status quo?

America is such a huge country that its no surprise that there are factions and great cultural gaps between people. There are some people who think some ways and some people who think other ways – I guess the fact that the middle of that vast continent is less represented in cultural activities is part of it.

The film has been called, “the first great film to depict the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis,” with the baddies being as much the bankers as bank robbers.

On the face of it, the crimes are the bank robberies but it is very clear that there is institutional crime in an abstract form affecting people’s lives in huge ways. The sense of confused justice and where the real crimes are is very much what the film’s about.

The film became the highest grossing indie film of 2016. Smaller budget films have been squeezed out of cinemas by massive blockbusters, but this has led to films that have nothing to say about real people and real lives.

I think it is a territory that has been squeezed out a lot over the last few years but I have a feeling this film is potentially on the vanguard of a new wave of mid-budget movies. They can afford to have some production values and bring in good actors but also be able to deal with mature themes and complexities that aren’t aiming at the lowest common denominator in order to reclaim a massive budget back.

Are big budget films making a mistake by focusing on being entertaining and…that’s about it?

Yeah, they’re not ready to rock the boat, they just want to have some sort of good versus evil and good wins in the end narrative. Maybe there’s a theme that’s going on in the first act because they need something to hook you in but the resolution is usually very simplified. That’s a massive generalisation, there is so much money involved in the bigger budget films that they’re terrible risk averse. There has to be an awareness among people making and financing films that there’s something empty about that and that it’s better to be looking for films that are actually about something.

Hell or High Water is out on Blu-ray and DVD 9 January

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