Hell or High Water is a simple story with a lot of layers – it’s about brothers who are robbing branches of the bank that’s about to foreclose on their family’s ranch in order to pay the bank off. It’s about a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement who gets one last big case. It’s about the old and the new – and how no matter how much things change, they always remain the same.
It’s also one of the best films of the year.
The film opens with brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) holding up a bank – taking only money from the cash drawers (nothing over a twenty) and driving off in a car that’s destined for a (literal) early grave. As they leave the bank, Townes Van Zandt’s Dollar Bill Blues plays over the opening credits – a sure sign that this is a film that will have a bittersweet conclusion.
We soon learn that Toby is divorced, with two sons, and that Tanner is a not-terribly-bright career criminal who has spent the better part of his life in jail. They plan to hold up more branches of the same bank but Tanner’s having so much fun, he breaks every rule in Toby’s plan (except the part about not taking money that’s traceable).
We learn that following their mother’s death, the bank is about to foreclose on a reverse mortgage. They have until Friday (the film appears to begin on Tuesday) – and an advisor (Kevin Rankin) suggests they be at the bank early (before end of business on Thursday). He seems aware of their plan and all in favor of it.
Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) find themselves on the case. Hamilton is about to retire and tells his biracial (Native America/Mexican) he’ll miss his teasing (singularly inappropriate, race-based comments) when he’s gone. Parker occasionally zings Hamilton back – they’ve obviously been partners for a while and enjoy pushing each other’s buttons.
Hamilton, it turns out, is almost as clever Toby – he figures out that the bank robbers are smart and have a purpose, like needing to reach a certain amount of money for a specific reason.
Possible witnesses prove uncooperative – one older fellow suggests that the bank has been robbing folks for years, so he has no problem with it being robbed; a waitress who got a large tip refuses to hand the movie over to Hamilton without a warrant because it’s half her mortgage payment.
Even Hamilton isn’t enamored of banks – he describes one robbed banks’ manager as, he looks like he’d foreclose on someone’ – but the law is the law…
Of course things go off the rails and there’s a chase sequence and gunplay – but they’re not like their equivalents in other movies. Hell or High Water is not thriller or an action flick – it’s a movie about people who are forced to do unpleasant things to survive, and the folks that have to deal with them no matter how much they might sympathize.
Toby Howard is another role that allows Chris Pine to stretch as an actor and he’s full value as the smarter, more cautious brother who has figured out a way to pay off the bank and tweak its nose at the same time. Foster kills as the dimmer, devil may care older brother who just can’t help doing stupid, risky stuff.
Bridges is laid back and wise as Hamilton, while Birmingham is almost stoic as Parker – until he has a good dig at his brasher partner.
Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), working from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), takes his time with the film – there are shots of the countryside that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford western – and really let’s his characters tell their story at their own pace.
The intelligence of the film ranges from Toby’s plan for robbing banks and the very logical way it’s laundered, to Hamilton’s figuring out what the brothers are doing and his plan to get one step ahead of them.
Besides looking at the way many no longer trust banks, the film has a thing or two to say about gun control – there’s a sequence that highlights Texas’ concealed carry permits in a way that leaves it open to both sides of a conversation. It’s also one of the film’s funniest moments – along with a ‘rattlesnake’ waitress and few other good bits.
Hell or High Water is a strange film to release during the dog days of August when studios are burning off a lot of their less-likely-to-perform films. It’s smart, beautiful to look at and filled with awards-caliber performances.
Even the soundtrack is peppered with great songs for a wide range of acts.
This is not a film you want to miss.
Final Grade: A+