HEADS UP – I DISCUSS THE FILM’S ENDING IN THIS REVIEW IN THE MOST SPOILER-LITE WAY POSSIBLE
Hell or High Water, director David Mackenzie’s modern day cops-and-outlaws western, predictably builds to a standoff between the weary lawmen (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) and righteous bank robbers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster). After 100+ minutes of wistful gazing at barren West Texas fields and uniquely Midwestern bickering between partners and brothers, we finally get our gunfight, and it is suitably tense, brutal and unforgiving. However, as this final sequence unfolded in front of me, pushing me to the edge of my seat in anticipation, I realized I didn’t know who to root for.
That might seem like a reductive sentiment. After all, westerns have long since abandoned the black hat vs. white hat dynamic of old Hollywood. Filmmakers working in this genre, be it a classical period piece or modern updating, can and usually do paint in moral greys now. You’re supposed to feel conflicted. You’re not supposed to know who to root for (Django Unchained is one obvious exception).
Yet Hell or High Water so perfectly acquaints us with both sides of its conflict, the Texas Rangers compelled to uphold the law and the beleaguered brothers desperate for money to save their ranch after being screwed over by the bank, that I somehow convinced myself everything would turn out okay for everyone. My mind perhaps dulled by the moral simplicity of a steady diet of summer blockbusters, I half-jokingly wondered if the cops and robbers would somehow combine their forces and take on the true enemy, i.e., the banks who are preying on the old and weak and seizing private property. Of course, I knew that wouldn’t actually happen. However, I had come to care for all of the characters so much I dreaded the idea of them being drawn into conflict, especially since both sides are seen as being aware of the despicable deeds of the area’s bankers, a topicality which Bridges feels the western genre is uniquely suited to reflect:
Well, one of the themes to many westerns is the times they are a changing, whether it’s here come the automobiles, kicking horses to the curb or, in this sense, banks owning up private property or, you know – you go back to another western that I was involved in – “Heaven’s Gate” had kind of a similar theme, you know. In those days, it wasn’t big oil companies, but it was cattle barons that ruled the land. And this is a story that’s always timely.
Pine (who has never been better) and Foster (who oddly looks and sounds more like Alan Tudyk than himself these days) play brothers Toby and Tanner, the former a divorced father of two, the latter a perpetual fuck-up fresh off a 10-year prison stint for, what else, bank robbing. Bridges and Birmingham play Marcus and Alberto, the former a deceptively intelligent Ranger on the verge of retirement, the latter his Mexican-Native American partner with a surprisingly high tolerance for race-based teasing.
We meet Toby and Tanner as they amateurishly make their way through a robbery of a small town bank, Toby clearly using this as a means to an end and Tanner in it for the adrenaline rush. Marcus and Alberto show up later to investigate the robbery, discovering the suspects are only targeting small town banks with no security cameras and only taking small bills from cash drawers so as not to mess with any ink bags or traceable large bills.
The cat and mouse game is underway, but the film’s not exactly in a rush to get where it’s going. Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) script takes its time without feeling like it’s wasting our’s, and cinematographer Giles Nutdgens’ camera lingers on the dilapidated buildings and empty fields dotting the countryside without ever feeling too sledgehammer about it (others might disagree). Some scenes feel like practical tone poems, such as the brothers, on the eve of their last big gig, playfully goofing around while the moonlight perfectly illuminates the vastness of their ranch. Other scenes invite us to observe a master at work, picking up on every subtle thing Jeff Bridges is doing with his performance while debating hotel TV channel choices with his partner.
All of that might give the false impression Hell or High Water is really just a boring or meandering movie best enjoyed by film nerds (I feel the sudden need to say “not that there’s anything wrong with that”). However, it is actually quite conventionally engaging as a thrilling crime drama. Thanks to Foster’s livewire performance and the capable supporting roster of Texas locals, including one scene-stealing turn from an older waitress with very specific opinions about what you should order, there are consistent laughs throughout. Plus, the story is structured in such a way that it preserves a considerable amount of mystery. While we meet the brothers at the start of their crime spree, we only gradually learn their motivations and the true extent of their plan, which turns out to be quite ingenious (although before seeing the movie you might want to google “reverse mortgage” if you’ve never heard of it before).
If there are criticisms to be made it might come down to matters of representation (i.e., like many westerns, don’t come here looking for strong female characters) and sound design (thanks to the thick Texas accents it is initially difficult to understand all of the dialogue). On that last note, Jeff Bridges’ lines are particularly challenging at first since he sounds like a mixture of his True Grit and Crazy Heart characters.
But your ears do eventually adjust, freeing you up to appreciate this cinematic masterwork in which the world has too many cowboys shooting at the wrong people and too few options for recourse against the banks. The fact that it manages to tell that story without coming off as preachy or overly heavy-handed but instead compellingly character-based is quite the accomplishment. Though the lawmen and outlaws of this story rarely interact, once they do it makes for some of the more memorable moments of any film I’ve seen this year.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The universe of Hell or High Water is one in which actions done in the name of justice still haunt men to their graves and the despicable deeds of the banks trample most of the little guys squarely underfoot, all perfectly compelling elements for any film. However, what stands out most are the characters, the believable brothers and bickering partners pitted against each other by circumstance. As a result, Hell or High Water is ultimately a big story (weep for West Texas) told in a small way (weep for these brothers), and will likely end up being recognized come awards season.
…OR TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY
Imagine if Peter Weir and Sam Peckinpah co-directed that Quantum Leap episode where Sam leaps into Indiana brothers robbing a bank to save their family’s farm. Except these brothers are a lot better at it than the ones in QL. That’s kind of – and I heavily, heavily stress “kind of” – what Hell or High Water is like.