Director: David Mackenzie
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 102 minutes
The dusty wilds of West Texas have proven a fine setting for crime dramas (see No Country for Old Men), and Hell or High Water uses the locale wonderfully to tell its character-driven caper. The modern Western also folds the socioeconomic realities of the present into the classic tale of cops and outlaws.
While incorporating the metaphorical language common to the genre at its zenith, in many ways the film is also about the death of the West as it once was, a region where the archetypal lifestyle is being ground into the dry earth by the crush of the 21st century.
Desperate to save the family ranch, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard plan to rob several branches of the bank that’s set to foreclose on their land. On their trail is soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).
Over the course of a few days the stakes are raised, the tension mounts, and mechanics of the plan come into focus. All of it works and feels organic, and though certain outcomes may be telegraphed simply by our knowledge of similar stories, the world created in Hell or High Water feels lived in and earns all of its consequences, both dreadful and triumphant. If there is such a thing as triumphant in this context.
The script by Taylor Sheridan has some commonality with his Sicario in that desolate landscapes, moral ambiguity, and impending doom converge in interesting ways. There are also no clean solutions and the game can change in a second based on the choices that are made. Under a different set of circumstances, we could see all of the principles connecting in a much different way and on multiple levels.
Director David Mackenzie does a masterful job of letting the story ingredients simmer and immersing us in the moments with the characters. As the narrative unfolds there’s a natural progression that doesn’t involve a pounding of exposition. When we see things like the brothers’ method for disposing of getaway cars, wet get it. Their way of laundering the cash is also simplistic genius.
The cast is uniformly terrific. If I were to tell you one of the Howard brothers was an impulsive ex-con and one was a gentler soul, you could probably guess that Foster was the former and Pine the latter. Though they play to familiar type, their yin-yang relationship contains shades of gray on both sides. Toby isn’t completely sympathetic – he is robbing banks, after all, and Tanner isn’t a completely unhinged psycho. Both actors find the middle ground to make their characters feel whole instead of props in the plot. Foster especially seems to fit this type of setting; his turn as a more traditional scoundrel in 3:10 to Yuma is also incredible.
Bridges is perfect in the role of Hamilton and gives an awards-worthy performance. Everything from his vocal and physical affectations to his moustache is genuine. The retiring Ranger – one of many recognizable tropes used effectively – also represents the ending of an era. He’s a proper Texas gentleman and a good cop, though an old fashioned one. He won’t talk on a cell phone while he drives and greets everyone with a tip of his hat, but he doesn’t hesitate to poke his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) with slurs about his Native American and Mexican heritage. Bridges makes it all endearing.
Smart and stylistically steady, Hell or High Water subscribes to convention while giving it a fresh and thoughtful spin. Occasionally, the contemporary morals are presented bluntly – several “debt relief” billboards stick out and Alberto’s speech about cycles of land being stolen from its inhabitants is on-the-nose, but overall the messages ring true.
The film is also full of surprise and suspense after the players in the game are firmly established, with Sheridan and Mackenzie managing changes in mood and tone, taking us through humor, heartache, violence, and tragedy. The sense of unwavering authenticity, from the setting to the characters who inhabit it and their principles, help make Hell or High Water a thrilling experience and one of the best films of the year so far.