The story of David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is at least as old as Bonnie & Clyde. You remember them. They robbed banks. So do Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard, brothers, which, as narrative law dictates, means the former is a fiery loose cannon and the latter is a pent-up if dreamy good guy. Though Tanner has done time in prison, their root motives for robbery are pure, a stick-up means of stealing from the very bank set to foreclose on their mama’s valuable land, and using this taken money to ensure Toby’s two sons can hang onto the land rather than the greedy financiers instead. And they are tracked, as they must be, by a Texas Ranger, uncouthly loquacious Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).
While these bank takedowns might yield a grizzled law enforcing cynic in many movies, Bridges plays the part with more irascible humor, like a woozy combination of the Bridges version of Rooster Cogburn and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. It’s as if his character’s gone into law enforcement simply because he knows he can use his position to needle people, which is what he primarily enjoys doing, including, but not limited to, his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Comanche. As loud as Bridges performance is, Birmingham’s is soft, playing his character as if he has made a hard-won peace with Marcus and with America too. Although anger envelopes so many characters here, it is made clear that this anger’s origin can be traced directly to Alberto’s people. They were the first ones that got screwed over, and everyone else has been taking their turn getting screwed over ever since. That’s the American way.
Alberto explains this in a lengthy monologue when he and Marcus set up shop across from a Texas Midlands Bank in the long hope that it will be the next bank the Brothers Howard hold up (it isn’t). In this moment, Alberto summarizes both the movie’s motives and its air. As his speech concludes, he points at the bank across the street, an indicator of its role as society’s chief villain, and how despite the ethical and professional differences of these characters, Texas Midlands Bank nonetheless binds them all together in its greed. But the monologue just as aptly underscores “Hell or High Water’s” leisurely attitude. This might be a chase movie but that chase gently unwinds rather than rushing forward. It wants to spend time in these remote west Texas outposts its characters pass through and listen to them talk, like a waitress at the T-Bone, an incredible walk off cameo by Margaret Bowman, in which she delivers a folksy soliloquy that’s as comical as it revealing. Everyone here has something to say, and rather than simply lashing itself to the plight of its primary characters, “Hell or High Water” carves out time for everyone.
Well, maybe not everyone. Although Toby has a sweet conversation with a diner waitress (Katy Mixon), leaving a gigantic tip that’s less of a crack-the-case clue than character building, his ex-wife, played by an underused Marin Ireland whose eyes all alone seem to suggest the weariness of raising two little boys by herself, merely comes and goes as required. Whatever ailed their marriage is beside the point apparently, and Pine, who often is made to sit in frames and stare pensively off into the distance, never quite clues us into what’s behind those brooding eyes beyond his moneymaking scheme. Foster at least allows a fatalistic mischievousness to creep into his cackle, communicating a sense of knowing his inevitable comeuppance is deserved. Pine, on the other hand, gives his character the hushed spin of a one dimensional folk hero.
But he’s not really a folk hero, which Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay does not seem to know in its shallow rendering of him even as it simultaneously undercuts his supposed heroism. While Toby is made to emulate the infamous Neil McCauley Code of only wanting the bank’s money and intending to hurt no one while robbing, people get hurt anyway, and the movie curiously forgoes allowing these sins to truly settle. It seems to think that Toby simply getting back at the bank and subsequently passing off the land to his two sons so they can get rich is enough.
When people get hurt, and the brothers make their escape, they are met not by law enforcement but by locals carrying concealed weapons taking cover and opening fire. Tanner and Toby escape, barely, and what follows is a resplendent modern twist on the western, with a fleet of SUVs track the Brothers Howard, like a modern day posse. It’s mob justice, signaling a breakdown in the system, where the locals have no faith in the rangers, just as the brothers have no faith in the banks. It’s every man and woman for his or her self. In that regard, perhaps the negating of Toby’s anti-authoritarian kindliness is on point.
Throughout his film, Mackenzie and crack cinematographer Giles Nuttgen revel in the west Texas landscape, less taken with its beauty than its ominousness, indulging in blood red suns hanging low on the horizon, obscured by haze, and offering a massive brush fire that has sent ranchers and their cattle scurrying. In this latter moment, the prairie almost looks like the apocalypse, and that’s the mood befitting the entire film. Hell or High Water? Pfffft. Hell’s already here.