Hell or High Water is a slow-build Western heist thriller with a sparse plot and faultless acting. Lovingly filmed in several saddle-weary, small New Mexico towns (though set in contemporary West Texas), the roving camera takes us through the contradictions and tensions of the modern West: there are dusty ranges and lonesome roads, but also strip malls, omnipresent debt-relief billboards, shuttered stores and foreclosure signs — in one scene a cowboy rides a gray horse past a neon-green Dodge Challenger Hellcat. The film is thus also a thoughtful exploration of debt, change and instability in what we have come to call the post-2008 Financial Crisis era. Joining No Country for Old Men and Bone Tomahawk, Hell or High Water is a worthy addition to a series of recent Westerns exploring the visceral frontiers of despair.
World-weary Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his live-wire ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) go on a bank-robbing spree to raise enough cash to stop the predatory Texas Midlands Bank foreclosing on their dead mother’s ranch. Naturally, they target branches of the Texas Midlands Bank — a pattern discerned by soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his American Indian/Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). With the foreclosure date looming and the brothers still short on money, tension builds to a bloody climax as the rangers close in, and the Howard brothers start to get sloppy.
While the plot is a typical cat-and-mouse affair, with each bank job and its ensuing complications propelling us into a new chapter of the pursuit, the bulk of screen time is dedicated to developing the two key relationships. Brotherly love is the one strong thread in the Howards’ unstable lives, each trying to come to terms with their checkered pasts and decide which side of trouble they want to remain on. Measured doses of rambunctiousness and tenderness make for an entertaining, bittersweet depiction that rings true.
More subtle are the exchanges between the Texas Rangers. Hamilton and Parker’s mock-cantankerous banter demonstrates a deep bond between the aging lawmen, which is essential for the drama. In a typical exchange, Parker asks Hamilton to pick up some food:
Hamilton: I doubt they serve pemmican
Parker: You know I’m part Mexican too?
Hamilton: Well, I’m going to get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s going to be a while.
Now, the race-based ribbing — though a cinematic staple of intimate camaraderie, particularly in the macho West — sits uneasily here, and knowingly so, in my view. While the exchange above reads as blasé, what elevates the movie is the sensitive attention to the tensions between the white Texan retiree with his Western (in both senses of the word) world view and Parker’s understandably more jaundiced perspective. Scottish director David McKenzie is commendably mindful of the darker histories of the West, and the ravages of modern financial disenfranchisement are located subtly and respectfully in the context of cultural genocides past and frontier-related racial tensions present. This concern is echoed later in a tense exchange between brother Tanner and a Comanche gambler in the casino.
Tanner: You Comanche? “Lords of the plains?”
Comanche: Lords of nothing now.
Hell or High Water rightfully earned admiration for outstanding acting and economical storytelling. Chris Pine is great, proving he’s more than just blue eyes and stubble in a subtle performance that channels Josh Brolin’s in No Country For Old Men. Jeff Bridges’ dyed-in-the-wool, impenetrably gruff Ranger is basically his hard-boiled marshall from True Grit with a mouth full of sawdust, but some exceptionally affective acting in the movie’s moving climax fully justifies the Oscar nomination.
Dan’s Rating: (9 / 10)
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Release Date: August 26, 2016
Runtime: 1 hr. 42 mins
MPAA Rating: R