HELL OR HIGH WATER – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
As an Englishman who grew up in that country’s verdant landscape, the first time I drove through eastern New Mexico and western Texas was an eye-opening experience. The stretches of road between Amarillo and Albuquerque, and between El Paso and Midland-Odessa, cut through some of the most inhospitable landscapes I have ever seen; miles and miles of semi-arid desert, flat as a pancake, dotted with creosote bushes, yucca plants, cholla cactuses, and the occasional corpse of an armadillo, but not much else. It’s a place rich in oil and other natural resources, but some of the smaller towns in that area look like the apocalypse has blown through, leaving behind abandoned buildings, dusty streets, and little in the way of money or opportunity for the hardy people who continue to eke out a living there. It is against this backdrop of deprivation that Scottish director David Mackenzie’s film Hell or High Water is set. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as two brothers who begin a crime spree, robbing local banks; Jeff Bridges plays the dogged Texas Ranger sent to stop them. The film looks like a fairly straightforward crime thriller from the outside, but it is actually much deeper than that, and tackles some rather weighty subjects, offering a searing criticism of aspects of the American banking system, looking at the plight of the poor in rural communities, and examining the relationship between two brothers who have reached a breaking point and have nothing left to lose.
The score for Hell or High Water is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who seem to have carved out a niche for themselves as film music’s go-to guys for serious dramas set in the American west. Cave is, of course, the Australian-born singer-songwriter best known as the gravel-voiced front man of his band The Bad Seeds; Ellis is the multi-instrumentalist who collaborates with him on the music. Since making their film music debut in 2005 with the film The Proposition, Cave and Ellis have scored several films which examine the dark underbelly of that most American of genres, with acclaimed films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009), and Lawless (2012) among their credits. Hell or High Water is very much a companion piece to those scores; mirroring the deeper themes of the film, Cave and Ellis’s music is like the flipside of all those familiar traditional country music tropes. There are guitars, and there are fiddles, but they are subverted, offering a grim but realistic portrayal of the hard lives people live out there on the plains.
One word can be used to describe much of Hell or High Water: depressing. Cave and Ellis use the same small core of instrumental textures throughout the score – strings, guitars, fiddle, piano, electronics, and occasional voices – creating a soundscape that is bleak and unforgiving. Sometimes it has a quiet, stark beauty to it, but more often than not it is a score which dwells in darker areas, speaking to the difficult lives of the protagonists, and capturing the increasingly desperate and dangerous lengths they go to in achieving their goals. Themes are not the score’s strong point, but there are a couple of small three and four note motifs which recur throughout the score, jumping from instrument to instrument in different cues. For the most part, though, Hell or High Water is a score more concerned with depicting a mood, rather than impressing with its musical architecture.
The two bookending cues, both called “Comancheria” in reference to the historic name for the region, are brooding and ominous, initially offering an omen of things to come, and latterly reflecting on the tragic consequences of the tale. The dark piano chords in these cues hint at the humanity and sense of misguided righteousness the brothers try to maintain throughout the tale, and carry over into “Mama’s Room,” where the pianos are offset against agitated string and fiddle textures, offering a sense of regret and loss mixed with anger and bitterness.
The cues which underscore the bank robberies themselves, “Texas Midlands” and “Robbery,” see Cave and Ellis augmenting their core sound with some urgency and more than a hint of danger. The mournful fiddle solos and piano chords combine with a heartbeat-like percussive pulse, tapped cymbals in a more lively beat, growling electric guitars, and mournful voices and scratchy electronics, building to an agitated finale with moments of great cacophony and dissonance that capture the breathless exhilaration of the adventure, but also the realization of the consequences their actions might have.
In “Mountain Lion Mean” and “From My Cold Dead Hands” this anguished sound slowly emerges into a more lyrical fiddle tune, again juxtaposing the brothers’ illegal activities against their fraternal relationship and their justification for their crime spree. By the time we reach “Lord of the Plains” and “Casino” the music has become reflective, with haunting fiddle solos, more prominent voices, and beds of drones which speak to the sense of loss felt by the characters, the terrible choices they have made, and their ultimate fates.
The Hell or High Water soundtrack album is augmented by a number of classic country and southern rock songs by artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Waylon Jennings, as well as newer kids on the block like Colter Wall, Scott Biram, and Chris Stapleton. Their songs fit perfectly with the guitar-heavy sounds Cave and Ellis work into their score, and offer ruminations on the same themes, telling tales of working class outlaws, gamblers, and damaged cowboys just trying to survive.
Hell or High Water is not a fun experience, nor is it meant to be. Although the film itself does contain a healthy dose of gallows humor and foul-mouthed brotherly banter, it’s main purpose is to illustrate the desperate actions men will take when life and circumstance pushes them to their breaking point. As such, Cave and Ellis’s score speaks to those emotions with a series of dour, gloomy instrumentals which take several of the familiar western musical tropes, bring them into the 21st century, and offer them as a depiction of a decaying way of life. Fans of their scores for other western films may find it to be an interesting diversion, and fans of Cave’s similarly-toned rock songs may find themselves wallowing in this wordless variation on his patented melancholy. For others, and although it suits the film perfectly, the lack of any recurring melodic content, and the constant depiction of one single miserable emotion, will likely leave you bored, depressed, or both.
Buy the Hell or High Water soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Comancheria (2:05)
- Dollar Bill Blues (written and performed by Townes Van Zandt) (3:01)
- Mama’s Room (2:49)
- Dust of the Chase (written and performed by Ray Wylie Hubbard) (5:05)
- Texas Midlands (2:02)
- Robbery (3:26)
- You Ask Me To (written by Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, performed by Waylon Jennings) (2:29)
- Mountain Lion Mean (2:07)
- Sleeping on the Blacktop (written and performed by Colter Wall) (3:12)
- From My Cold Dead Hands (2:31)
- Lord of the Plains (2:35)
- Blood, Sweat and Murder (written by Scott H. Biram, performed by The Dirty One Man Band) (2:54)
- Casino (1:50)
- Comancheria II (1:49)
- Outlaw State of Mind (written by Chris Stapleton, Ronnie Bowman, and Jerry Salley, performed by Chris Stapleton) (5:35)
Running Time: 43 minutes 30 seconds
Milan Records (2016)
Music composed and arranged by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson and Chris Blakey. Edited by Jennifer Nash. Album produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.