Hell or High Water is a delight, an oasis in the middle of the cinematic lost highway that is mid to late August. But it would stand on its own any time of the year. What initially shows its hand as a traditional crime drama, about small town cops and crooks, becomes something much more complex on these Texas back roads. This is a morality play, a politically savvy cautionary tale, a thriller, a rich Texas Noir, and it’s peppered with more laughs than any of the big summer tentpoles combined.
Chris Pine an Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, two brothers who are in the middle of a calculated bank robbery spree when we first meet them. They have what seems to be a strict set of rules, a finite plan, and they only hit lonely banks in dying Texas towns. At one point a target bank is deemed too big because it actually appears to have customers. These brothers are getting just enough money to pay off a reverse mortgage and tax debt, but their reasons for getting square with the banks run deeper.
Pine’s Toby is the more measured and clearheaded brother. Of course. No surprise since the other brother is played by Ben Foster. At the same time though, Foster manages to keep his typical manic hamminess in check while still defining Tanner as the looser of these two cannons. It’s pretty cool seeing Chris Pine in a film like Hell or High Water, too. It proves Pine is more than The New Captain Kirk. He has some depth to him, and despite his impossible good looks he works hard here to try and hide while showing us something beneath that glossy facade.
The brothers’ robbery spree eventually lands in the reluctant lap of Marcus Hamilton, a small-town police officer played with mealy-mouthed brilliance by Jeff Bridges. Marcus is (wait for it) a few days from retirement, and he doesn’t really want to get into this mess. But he does, because he’s a man of the law, and what else would he be doing? Oh, and he’s a little racist towards his partner, and just a little “Clint Eastwood” in his opinions about society. Probably. But it’s all okay, because this is the sunbaked nothingness of West Texas, where towns die faster than the rattlesnakes, and where a socially unacceptable curmudgeon like Marcus Hamilton makes perfect sense.
And it’s these small details that make Bridges’ performance so incredible.
I spent the first 25 years of my life in or near these small Texas towns in David Mackenzie’s film. And I have known, in one way or another, this character Jeff Bridges is playing. In a lot of ways he’s my dad, and seeing Bridges sink into this mumbling, old school cowboy, a mirror image of the dead West Texas towns he defends, is a marvel. Jeff bridges is a national treasure, and this is one of his finest moments. It’s hard to believe he didn’t grow up in the dusty plains himself.
Hamilton and his Native-American partner (Gil Birmingham), whose friendship is one of the more honest relationships in 2016 cinema, are on the inevitable collision course with Toby and Tanner. But their paths cross in unpredictable ways, and the journey of both the lawmen and their targets are given their fair share of screen time. Which is crucial, because as Hell or High Water bobs along we find ourselves pulling for both sides. Nobody here is a bad person, they’re just survivalists.
Bridges’ Hamilton is quite a character, a lovable bumpkin with a badge, and he and his partner appear to genuinely care for each other. The action unfolds and we find out what Hamilton is made of in two crucial moments. But the focus of the film is Toby and Tanner’s relationship. From the moment we see these two brothers, what is unspoken defines their relationship more than the utilitarian dialogue driving the plot forward. These are all lived in performances, and almost immediately we buy these two as siblings, cut from the same cloth. But just barely the same cloth; maybe opposite ends of it.
Hell or High Water has a few moments of violence, but none of it exists without motivation. And these violent acts seem to carry real aftereffects. Bridges’ character has to kill in one scene, and he conveys the weight of consequence in a brief moment that is as impactful as the greatest monologue. Plus, in the middle of this taut, contained little narrative, is a commentary on the “Second Amendment People” who’ve been in the news recently. Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan manage to fit these gun-toting vigilantes in the story and comment on them through plot developments, all without drawing heavy-handed attention. It adds another layer to a film that operates on so many levels.
There are easy comparisons to make here. No Country For Old Men springs to mind almost immediately. But, as great as the Coens’ film is, there’s something more authentic about Hell or High Water. The settings in this film – kitchens with full laundry baskets and horizons that seem to stretch into infinity – are rich in detail, and they’re absolute representations of this world. It’s uncanny to think Mackenzie is a Brit, but here he is, capturing the very essence of Texas Noir better than just about anyone.
What’s most refreshing about this film is its third act. While there are moments of action and violence, Mackenzie either didn’t feel the need to (or wasn’t forced to) film a shoot-em-up finale. The story ends where it should, as it would, and it’s more rewarding than any sort of bloodshed these sort of small indie thrillers are typically addicted to.
It’s a shame something like this brilliant little glimpse into human nature has been rated R, for no real reason, when a garbage exploitation of violence and depravity (and bullshit) like Suicide Squad skates by with a PG-13. It’s time to end the MPAA. But that’s for another time. For now, you should seek out Hell or High Water and soak up its subtle intelligence. It’s a breath of fresh air.