In Hell or High Water, it’s a given that a man lives in sin. They’re not guilty of living unmorally. Rather, they’re vindicated by how they choose to live in a world littered with deceit. A classical Western in that regard, director David Mackenzie’s follow-up to his acclaimed Starred Up is an uncompromising, scruffy, weary yet quietly contemplative look at modern America, in a world where the banks are ruthless monarchs, bank robbers are martyrs and local sheriffs are merely keeping order amongst the chaos. As bleak as it is soulful, it’s not quite masterful, but it’s invigorated. It’s also mournful, melancholy and ultimately meaningful, thus resulting in one of summer’s better late additions.
The bank robbers in this scenario are Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively), two petty criminals hitting local banks across Texas in order to steal enough government money to pay their late mother’s medical fees. Tanner, a recently convicted criminal, is the muscle of the operation; Toby, a man without a single stain on his record, is the brains. Together, they hop from vehicle to vehicle and small town to small town in order to pull an elaborate Robin Hood-esque score against the big wigs.
Following them closely on their trails are the sheriffs in the equation: Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The former is a grizzled curmudgeon, an experienced, sharp-eyed lawman who isn’t afraid to joke upon the ethnicity of his half-Native American, half-Mexican partner at any moment’s notice. The latter is a stern, fact-driven middle-aged man, who is quickly learning the ways of the trade regarding their shared business. Together, they track down these pointed criminals, in hopes that they’ll catch up before these brothers finish executing their course of action.
Hell or High Water is an angry, passionate slice of Americana filmmaking, but it’s also a remorseful, conscience-driven one too. It’s deeply indebted to the Coen brothers, almost to a fault. Comparisons to Fargo, Raising Arizona and, most especially, No Country for Old Men are rather unavoidable, especially as the lyrical screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) owes as much to Cormac McCarthy as it does to the filmmaking duo. But where McCarthy’s writing is practically effortless in its poetic nihilism, Sheridan’s writing is less eloquent and more forced in its elegiac terse. That’s not to say it’s bad; in fact, he helped produce a tight, effectively cutting piece of work. But neither he nor Mackenzie reach the height of their influences, and that’s their biggest cross to bear.
What matters more than anything, however, is the symbolism, and that’s truly where it succeeds. Hell or High Water is a movie where talk is economic, violence is purposeful, guns are necessities, horses are tied up in front of gas stations, beer is plentiful and landscapes are barren, and it excels in that regard. The Texas backdrop is especially essential, even though it’s actually filmed in New Mexico. Much like how Minnesota’s snowy terrain informs Fargo‘s chilly existentialism, Texas plays like a miserable, desolate and almost endlessly picturesque portrait of anguish, the source of death and prickly rebirth at every turn. Just as it played a big part in No Country For Old Men‘s cynicism, it imparts long, often distant plains of sorrow and spite, a place where the living need to adapt to horrible conditions to make the best possible existence for themselves. It’s as tragic as it’s affirming.
Hell or High Water ultimately finds its personality through its performances, which are all uniformly good. Pine is the biggest and best surprise of the cast, though. The Star Trek leads is becoming an exceptional actor these days, growing more confident and poised with each performance — even if he can’t hold a Southern accent to save his life. His eternally blue eyes are a constant source of longing and sadness here, reflecting the sensitivity and seclusion needed to make the part work. He’s set to go places.
Meanwhile, Foster — far better than he ever was inWarcraft — provides another great performance to his typically impressive resume, relishing in his scummy character’s complete disregard to liberty and social order and providing a madman with a purpose. Birmingham is as stern and tight-lipped as can be, but he serves an important purpose in the narrative, and Bridges is not only thankfully audible this time around (which is practically becoming a rarity these days) but layered, torn and hurt in his characteristic crabbiness. He might ultimately be filling in for Tommy Lee Jones in some respects, but Bridges also gives some of his best work post-Crazy Heart in the part.
Sharp, somber and carefully constructed, Hell or High Water doesn’t quite rise to the heights of its elders, but it’s never less than accomplished in its goals. Aided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ expectedly exceptional score and guided by Giles Nuttgens’ handsome cinematography, Mackenzie’s latest is a scorching, winning drama. While perhaps too dreary to win over the affections of Oscar voters, it’ll undoubtably find its own audience. It’s a crisp, blistering, well-made modern Western that’s reserved when it needs to be and hard-hitting when it should be. Though not among the year’s best, it’s one of the summer’s most established. It pays its dues, and then some.