Two brothers are out to rob all the branches of a predatory bank, with weary Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges on their trail, in this dusty evocation of the collapse of the Western dream
Hell or High Water
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Chris Pine
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Running time: 102 minutes
By Jay Stone
“I been poor my whole life,” says Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a lean and laconic cowboy and oil worker who has turned to bank robbery to get by in the dazzling Western Hell or High Water. “It’s like a disease passing from generation to generation.”
That poverty — also expressed by highway signs along the hardscrabble Texas roads that read “Closing Down” or “Debt Relief” — sets a dusty mood for a story of how two men take on the system that tried to destroy them. The bank robbers are the heroes. The banks are the enemies.
It evokes Bonnie and Clyde, especially the scene where Warren Beatty is careful to leave the customers with their own money and only take what belongs to the bank. It also evokes the dangerous collapse of society in the Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men. It also pulls along something of the free-floating anger of the current American presidential race, in all its hopelessness.
That’s a lot of evocation for such a modest, low-budget project, but Hell or High Water comes with big ideas. It’s a movie about the times, wrapped up as a miniature portrait of a specific place and time — West Texas today — where a hunt for two desperados might be interrupted by a cowboy driving his herd ahead of a wildfire that’s just the latest piece of bad news in a weary battle for independence. In the wailing soundtrack and the sensitive cinematography, by Gilles Nutgens, you can almost feel the tumbleweed blow by.
We meet Toby and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) robbing a tiny branch of the Texas Midland Bank in one of several empty, dust-blown towns where the movie is set. They’re taking just small bills; their project is to rob every branch of the Texas Midland to recover the money stolen from their family in a heartless financial deal — something about reverse mortgages — that is never fully explained and doesn’t need to be. It’s just another story about the little guy getting screwed. You can read the backstory in any newspaper.
On their trail are the growly, cranky Texas Ranger Curtis (Jeff Bridges, fresh — as it were — from his turn as the ill-tempered gunman in True Grit) and his partner, the part-Comanche, part-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham.) The Comanche heritage as “king of the plains” is viewed in its full, pessimistic collapse in a scene in an Indian casino, where a native poker player explains how the world has become a place of enemies.
Hell Or High Water is a chase film, but it’s a slow, world-weary pursuit, punctuated by gunfire: everyone in the movie is armed, and there’s a funny and terrifying scene — also evocative of the U.S. political cycle — where dozens of people in a Texas town pull firearms on the robbers in their midst. Scottish director David Mackenzie, working with a screenplay by Tyler Sheridan, peppers the movie with a host of memorable characters, and he’s not averse to stopping to give them a chance to say their piece; not just that defeated cattleman, but a couple of vivid waitresses, including one (played by Margaret Bowman) who serves nothing but T-bone steaks prepared medium rare.
However, the movie hinges on the two pairs of protagonists. Toby and Tanner are an odd-couple pairing: the decent quiet guy who apologizes to the bank tellers he’s robbing and the volatile ex-con who whoops it up, spilling bills as he runs to the getaway car with handfuls of money. It’s a showcase for the loud intensity of Foster (3:10 to Yuma), but in the end, you realize you’ve been snookered by Pine (Star Trek), who hides Toby’s cleverness under a patina of cowboy restraint. “I never met anyone who got away with anything, ever,” Tanner says. “You?” The answer to that is the film’s coda.
On the other side of the law — though not of the morality — Bridges is reliably solid as the pragmatic, teasing Curtis, a performance that takes the creased confusion of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men and adds a puckish sense of humour. “I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without somebody to outsmart,” says Alberto, his foil and his partner.
Well, he ain’t gonna is how, although our more immediate concern is if Toby and Tanner are going to outsmart Texas Midland. We’re rooting for them, even though we can see there’s not much space for a total victory here. You can rob a few banks, but you can’t stop banking. “Pass With Care,” reads a road sign, perforated with bullet holes. That’s Texas; that’s America.
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