Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham
The West Texas of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a series of near ghost towns that seem frozen in time. Its restaurants, stores and, most crucially, banks are all but empty, save for the employees. The movie’s only hints at modernity are the frequent references to the 2008 financial crisis, as two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) drive from town to town robbing those nearly empty banks, they pass many a billboard telling them how to relieve debt.
Mackenzie is not subtle about the hitting home the economic turmoil that pushes Toby (Pine) to ask his wild, recently-released-from prison brother Tanner (Foster) to help him with the robberies. Toby is trying to raise enough money to pay off the debt he owes the bank to save their family ranch and establish a trust for his sons. The brothers don’t go for the vaults when they hit the banks, or take packets of money that are more easily traced. They go for small bills, which means they have to pull off several robberies to earn enough money. It also means they aren’t big time enough to draw the attention of the FBI, and are instead pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers, the soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his younger but no less world-weary partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Hamilton is the kind of movie lawman who is a living, breathing embodiment of “I’m getting too old for this shit.” He approaches the case like someone who knows he’s a step behind only because desperation or recklessness haven’t caught up with the criminals yet. His patience and caustic, calculated approach can seem like laziness, but is anything but. (He could also easily be related to Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country for Old Men). Bridges juts out his jaw and imbues the character with an appropriately syrupy drawl, and carries his body with a heaviness that makes each movement seem deliberate.
Hell or High Water works as well as it does because it sees both of its pairs, criminal and cop, with a sympathetic clarity. It begins with a set of robberies that end with the brothers zooming through back alleys. It then allows the Rangers to examine the aftermath as Toby and Tanner plan their next hold up. That plan is interrupted by Tanner’s impulsiveness; while they are eating at a diner, he says he’s going to the bathroom and walks across the street and robs another bank while Toby flirts with a waitress. He leaves her a $200 tip, an act of generosity that somewhat counteracts the brothers’ set-back when Hamilton tries to get information out of her.
Much of the movie’s conflict (and humor) comes in obstructing the brothers from robbing the banks and then the Rangers from investigating them. It climaxes with a pair of shootouts and a shocking, devastating death, but up until then it remains largely bloodless. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens create some striking, surprising imagery out of the barren Texas plains, notably a shot of Hamilton exiting a hotel as the sun rises, the blanket he has wrapped around him blowing behind him like a cape.
The men of Hell or High Water know each other well enough to see each other’s faults and vulnerabilities, but they disarm the situation with racist jokes or humorous jabs rather than addressing things directly. Mackenzie often puts the brothers together in a shot so that Toby’s worried, annoyed reactions are just as, if not more, prominent than Tanner’s actions. As much as the movie focuses on brotherly bonds, whether by blood or not, it features a slew of incredible one-scene performances. Nearly everyone the four main characters meet in the various small Texas towns, from an impatient waitress at a steak restaurant to a pair of smiley, greasy bankers, sticks out. Hell or High Water may hit on its Recession themes a bit too bluntly, but its characters are vibrant and complex and it is paced extraordinarily well. It is ultimately less about the brothers’ economic reckoning than it is a clear-eyed, somber vision of systemic desperation.