The Big Short, only with the gleaming skyscrapers of the Big Apple replaced with the vast and desolate ranches of the heartland. Hell or High Water is in many ways a classic heist picture, but the true thieves depicted here are the banks.
That may sound a tad polemical, and it's fair to criticize Hell or High Water
for tarring and feathering an avatar of exaggerated evil that has
already been burned in cinematic effigy. (Recent examples include 99 Homes and Money Monster, though the closest comparator here is Killing Them Softly,
Andrew Dominik's seamy underworld yarn that embellished its pulpy
narrative with persistent commentary on the government's post-Katrina
nonfeasance.) But this smart, soulful movie is too nuanced—and too
compassionate—to be reduced to its talking points. Its message may be
broad, but its details are thrillingly specific.
This begins with its geography. With its omnipresent Stetsons, its
solitary roadways, its rueful shots of windswept acreage, and its proud
Second Amendment-endorsing citizens, Hell or High Water may be
the most Texan movie ever made. (Its lone demerit on this score is that
filming actually took place in New Mexico.) Yet while it often seems to
take place in a lost-in-time frontier—the kind where a crotchety
waitress will upbraid customers who order anything other than a T-bone
steak—its characters still live under the poisonous cloud of the modern
banking oligarchy. That's certainly true of Toby (Chris Pine, curiously
cast), a divorced father of two whose reverse-mortgage is in default and
who is about to lose his family homestead despite recently striking oil
on it. Determined to provide for his children—and disgusted by the
rapacity of his lender, Texas Midlands Bank—Toby hatches a desperate and
vengeful scheme: He will rob a series of Texas Midlands branches,
launder the money through a casino, then use the ill-gotten gains to pay
off his mortgage before the bank forecloses at the end of the week. For
help, he enlists his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster, typically excellent),
an ex-con with a wide grin and a short fuse.
Watching the brothers during this quick-and-dirty heist and their
ensuing getaway, you might think that they fall into familiar movie
archetypes—the hotheaded lion and the helpless lamb. But none of the
characters in Hell or High Water is so easily pigeonholed. Tanner
may be prone to bursts of rage, but he also exhibits a roguish
charisma, and Foster makes him indecently likable while still making
plain that he's a psychopath. Pine has the trickier part, and his
irrepressible good looks initially make it difficult to accept Toby as a
hardscrabble everyman. But the script slyly capitalizes on the actor's
handsomeness—virtually everyone who meets Toby is attracted to him,
which gives him a strategic advantage over your typical tough. Besides,
while he may lack his sibling's live-wire ferocity, Toby is more callous
and calculating than he first appears; when he isn't devising ways to
keep the police off their tail (such as burying their cars under
gigantic mounds of dirt), he's pummeling hoodlums outside a gas station
with an enthusiasm that suggests that violence runs in the family.
It runs in the state, too, which accounts for the Texas Rangers, the other side of Hell or High Water's
cops-and-robbers divide. The particular ranger pursuing Toby and Tanner
is Marcus, a salt-of-the-earth lawman on the cusp of retirement. Marcus
is virtually the Platonic ideal of a cinematic detective: gruffly
competent and perceptive, but also leisurely, funny, and charming. In
other words, he's Jeff Bridges.
cult icon. Still, I can state with some confidence that this is
Bridges' best work in quite some time, and superior to his Oscar-winning
turn in Crazy Heart.
As Marcus, he's as casually captivating as ever, with a winningly
cantankerous disposition that allows him to constantly belittle his
mixed-race colleague, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), without ever once
seeming mean. But Marcus' faux-irritable demeanor camouflages a more
complex individual, and in the film's latter scenes, Bridges beautifully
articulates this rascally coot's hidden vulnerability and bone-deep
dignity. It's as if the part were written specifically for him.
Speaking of writing, the script for Hell or High Water is by Taylor Sheridan, the promising
actor-turned-screenwriter (perhaps coincidentally, his first role came
as a guest star on Chuck Norris' Walker, Texas Ranger) who last penned the unforgettable Sicario.
That merciless movie sketched humanity as an inky black void, and it
portrayed the Southwest as an arid wilderness where any flickers of hope
and decency were quickly extinguished. Hell or High Water has
its share of brutality, but it paints a much warmer picture. It features
only a handful of set pieces, all of which are skillfully staged but
which also feel somewhat incidental. What it really is—as telegraphed by
the delicate scraps of Nice Cave and Warren Ellis' gentle score—is a
poignant character study.
Mackenzie explored the strained-but-enduring relationship between a
father and son in the context of a harsh, unforgiving society. Here, he
turns to brothers, both literal and metaphorical. Toby and Tanner are
clearly very different people, but they nevertheless share blood, and
Pine and Foster together create an invisible connection that feels
unshakable. And while Marcus and Alberto roll their eyes at one another
more often than not, they have also formed a loyal partnership rooted
in mutual respect and grudging admiration. As Hell or High Water progresses toward the inevitable
collision of these two brotherhoods, it accumulates an emotional power
that is both tragic and strangely uplifting.
Talking of Texas in the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, M. Emmet Walsh memorably intoned, "Down here, you're on your own." Hell or High Water
pays tribute to that peerless noir (as every gritty American crime
drama must), but it also quietly and movingly subverts its nihilism,
replacing it with tenderness and grace. It may rail against the
injustices of the economy, but its characters aren't the only ones in
arrears. When artists deliver a movie as gripping and heartfelt as this
one, it is we, the viewers, who are in their debt.