As Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) questions a witness to a bank robbery in a West Texas diner, the witness rhetorically asks why people nowadays would even bother robbing a bank. There doesn’t seem like much of a chance that anyone could actually get away with it. But what happens if you didn’t have any other choice?
In a summer full of bloated blockbusters, the less-is-more approach of Hell or High Water is a breath of fresh air; the simplicity of cops versus robbers provides a tapestry that’s ripe for examination under a modern lens — which is exactly what director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan explore. Set in the aforementioned rural West Texas, Howard brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) have hatched a desperate, last-ditch effort to save their family home from foreclosure — by knocking over a series of banks to get the specific amount. As they drive around town we’re shown that it’s not just the brothers who have fallen on hard times; spectral background signs detailing fast cash stores and going out of business sales illuminate the plight of their fellow denizens.
The West Texas of Hell or High Water is a world that’s teetering on the verge of what it once was — while cowboys do move their herds across the plains, it’s with an air of tepidness and understand why they might be the last generation to do so — but those signs prove that even the most remote areas aren’t immune to the events of the rest of the nation. The dire financial circumstances have made it quite literally do or die for Tanner and Toby Howard.
Foster’s unhinged, ex-con Tanner is the showier and easily the funnier role of the two brothers, but Chris Pine is fantastic, bringing a quiet intensity and sadness to Toby; he’s a straight-laced man that’s very poorly carrying the weight of what he’s wrought, conveyed through smoldering glances that could double as sad eyes from a puppy. Pine has typically played more straight-laced roles, but there’s a complexity to that Toby that we haven’t seen before and Pine dives into it, with stunning results.
On the right side of the law, Jeff Bridges plays the previously mentioned Marcus Hamilton – whose pending retirement makes him more crotchety than normal. Bridges excels in these roles, but seems more energized here than in previous parts; that vigor is balanced nicely by a very apparent wariness. Marcus understands both the thrill of one more chase and the very real fact he could be bounding towards his end.
Sheridan’s script doesn’t quite match the perpetual levels of dread and intensity that Sicario — his previous and debut effort — became famous for, but there’s still plenty of white-knuckling to be found, aided by director David Mackenzie, who finds plenty of tension in those moments. The story often zigs where it would typically zag, deftly subverting expectations along the way and builds to a pitch-perfect third act, avoiding an issue that many movies this summer stumbled into.
There’s lots of talk in Hell or High Water about final days, about doing all you can for family before your time on this world is over. That pending morality propels the film in such a way that we know our characters are rapidly barreling towards one another, with only a matter of time before the sparks fly. Hell or High Water asks if the ends justify the means. Sure, there’s an answer, but that doesn’t mean these men won’t grapple with it up until the very end.