Hell or High Water
In a land where waitresses grumble about having had the same job for forty-four years, where sons of bitches still refer to Native Americans as Injuns and where societal standards are still shaded in thickly spread 1950s Americana, you bet your asses that bank robbers as terrifically old-fashioned as Redford and Newman’s Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy can still exist. So long as small town discontent roams freely, it’s very much possible for ne’er-do-wells who’ve given up on being good old boys to believe that imitating their favorite criminals will get them farther in their depressively unlucky lives.
All too fittingly, brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) have never known what it’s like not to struggle, to not have to fight to survive. In Tanner’s thirty-eight years of living, ten have been spent behind bars, an effect of unwisely chasing after cheap thrills and never toning down his bad conning habit. Nearing forty, Toby is divorced and with a couple kids who more or less seem like they could live without him.
Within the first few minutes of Hell or High Water do we see them at their wits’ end. Faced with ranch foreclosure due to their mother’s recent death, with other financial crises tacked on to make the situation even more dire, it’s decided that the only way to dig themselves out of their holes of impending fiscal doom is to make like Frank and Jesse James and empty out the vaults of low security banks in their native West Texas.
The very first scene of the film, which closely watches their first attempt at serious thievery, is more fraught with inexperience than mastery, though. “You’re new at this, ain’t you?” a relatively calm teller (Dale Dickey) muses with a gun pointed to her head.
But as they're living in a mostly desolate area with a populace too concerned with getting by themselves, no one seems much concerned about their criminality — excitement’s more prolific than fear mongering. Only the law gives weight to the Howards’ fetish for small payoffs to eventually mount, most especially Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), an odd couple who deals with Toby and Tanner’s crimes so nonchalantly we’d swear they could nab the pair in their sleep if they tried hard enough.
Expectedly things unravel — Tanner starts to get off on the adrenaline and begins exhibiting reckless behavior — and the goings-on drift from joyous to serious a la Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974). But as stakes rise in their immediacy, the movie’s warmth does too. The more we get to know these characters the more we come to understand them, our feelings toward them dramatically shifting as disarrays develop and they go from familiar character types to contradicting conglomerations of realness.
The two relationships that fuel the film — being the one resting between Toby and Tanner and Marcus and Alberto — are equally riveting, intriguing to dissect; both duos would undoubtedly clash if not brought together by circumstance. Foster’s Tanner thinks he’s your classic tough guy but is actually a feisty nincompoop so reckless he’d hardly know what it’s like to throw caution to the wind; Pine, stoic and rugged, brings back memories of Clint Eastwood during his spaghetti western years. Whether the two stick together out of unflinching love or out of obligation is slippery. Maybe felt is a combination of the two. But pondering what kind of men they were before we met them piques our interest and only gains momentum as the film progresses.
And so the seamless separation between their stories and that of Marcus and Alberto is all the more impressive, as flipping the channels between the two sets of pairs never causes our investing in either to wane. Bridges, Oscar worthy, is exceptional as a conservative old coot whose apparent close-mindedness proves only to be a guise to cover up his teddy bear heart; Birmingham, as his half-Mexican, half-Comanche wingman, is a retort machine able to defend his honor just fine. All together and the ensemble is dynamic, their performances reminiscent of the work done by ‘70s era Robert Altman’s factory of actors.
And it’s that dusty, toughly mannered spirit, anyway, that makes Hell or High Water one of the best movies of the year — without the modern technologies that sometimes salt the atmosphere, it’d closely resemble Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) or Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). It’s a character study hiding in an amalgamation of genre tropes, a heist thriller doused in greatness. Its pitch-perfect writing (by Sicario penner Taylor Sheridan), perceptive performances, and skillful direction (by the knowing David Mackenzie) are so electrifying to behold that it, with clichéd exasperation, is the kind of movie that makes one believe in the movies again. A-