A rusted out jalopy rumbles down the deserted side streets of a ghost town, past graffiti decrying a government that bails out banks while leaving nothing for its veterans. Two masked men enter a bank and rob it at gunpoint, a small drop of vengeance against an institution that’s wronged countless others. The modern Western Hell or High Water presents these arresting images in its first few moments and goes on to tell an indelible story about familial bonds, justice and a fading way of life. It’s a story that not-so-subtly plays on anti-establishment tendencies as it casts big banks as the bad guys, using small-town West Texas as a stand-in for forgotten America.
Given its pedigree, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hell or High Water works as well as it does. It’s written by Taylor Sheridan (who penned last year’s stellar Sicario), directed by David Mackenzie (who helmed the amazing prison-set pressure cooker Starred Up) and stars the perennially great Jeff Brides along with younger co-stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine. Regardless, it’s still a delight to see a film as confident and sure-footed as this rise above its genre-trappings to provide both pulpy dialogue and ample action.
Chris Pine stars as Toby Howard, a desperate divorced dad out of options as the bank threatens to foreclose on his family ranch. He enlists his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help him rob a series of banks and launder the money to pay off the looming reverse mortage. On the flip side of the law is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The two pairs become locked in a chess match, with the lawmen closing the net around the brothers as their crime spree continues.
Pine has rarely been better as Toby, looking gaunt and haunted while bringing a quiet nobility to the bank robber. Foster does his usual loose cannon schtick as Tanner, playing the more reckless of the brothers and getting a lot of funny lines in the process. They bullshit around and feel like brothers (like when they goof around against the backdrop of a Texas sunset), ensuring audiences fear for the safety of these guys even as they break the law. These are criminals you can root for, as a deep well of sadness and misfortune runs through their hard-scrabble lives but they still persevere.
Their chemisty is matched by that of the Rangers. Bridges brings his Rooster Cogburn drawl from True Grit to the character of Hamilton, a cowboy cop nearing retirement who wants to lock up this big case before riding off into the sunset. Hamilton ribs his partner Alberto, endlessly needling him about his driving skills and racial background, but when it comes down to it they’d take a bullet for one another. Bridges is warm and wry, and his presence – along with brialliant dialogue steeped in regional nuance – helps Hell or High Water feel even more like a Coen Brothers movie.
The setting certainly makes Hell or High Water seem similar to the Coens’ Western No Country For Old Men. There’s a lot of Texas touches, like a mean-as-a-rattlesnake waitress who won’t allow customers to order anything but a t-bone steak and a running joke that most of the bank patrons are armed as well (and willing to shoot back). Beyond the surface similarities (and both movies’ eminently quaotable dialogue) they strike a different tone.
If No Country For Old Men deals with nihilism and the presense of an ultimate evil, then Hell or High Water is about two pairs of brothers (one familial and the other brothers-in-arms) and how dire circumstances can force the hand of good men. For all the cowboy bravado of Toby and Tanner’s Robin Hood quest, they’re still sliding down a slippery slope of morality with each teller they hold up. Taylor Sheridan – whose script is probably the real star of the movie – has the insight to not lose sight of that fact, ensuring that Hell or High Water lingers on long after the one-liners and bullet smoke have faded.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Directed by David Mackenzie
Runtime: 102 minutes