Hell or High Water locates the western there for the taking underneath the modern post-industrial late-capitalism American west. It takes place in modern day, but it still has black hats and white hats and even some hats in between, and a preoccupation with who is allowed to make the rules and who is allowed to transgress the rules. The whole thing boils down to a hardtack cops and robbers movie, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) hitting small-town Texas banks to raise enough money to keep their late mother’s farmland out of the bank’s hands. You see, there’s oil there, and the bank would very much like to sell it to a company willing to tap it and pump out liquid gold. The brothers would rather get out of foreclosure and see the profits themselves. So they pull on ski masks, hop in their dusty, beat-up cars, and drive from target to target. All the while, two cops (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are in laid-back, laconic pursuit.
Read the film of a piece with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous script, for last year’s Drug War thriller Sicario, and it’s plainly another movie about contemporary frontier law and order, where people forgotten and ignored simply do the best they can to scrape out a living whether it be through crime or punishment. Taken with director David Mackenzie’s previous film, British father-and-son-in-prison movie Starred Up, it’s another masculine vision of family tension rippling across a surface disturbed by their mixed loyalties and the threat of violence (both from within and from outside the family unit). The tough, smart Hell or High Water is a synthesis of these ideas, held together as if by saltines and spittle as a dry and dusty combination of exposition and foreshadowing. As the brothers draw closer to their fundraising goal the lawmen draw closer to catching them. This won’t end well, but there’s an egalitarian respect on the part of the filmmakers, recognizing both halves of the equation have humanity worth considering.
The movie’s sharp plotting and unassuming concern with its characters’ lives put me in mind of Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard. Hardly a scene goes by without a line of dialogue that’s pleasing to the ear – an eccentric spin on a common sentiment, or a revealing exchange that casually illuminates some nook or cranny of personality a more single-mindedly plot-focused film would ignore. This extends to the robbers, as one fresh from prison remains jumpy and unpredictable, but also wounded that the other had their mother’s favor right up until the end. And then there are the cops, Bridges’ the old vet on the brink of retirement out for one last big case needling his Native American partner with the kind of affectionate racially-charged teasing he thinks is fine because it’s meant well, but lands with studied stoic exasperation on Birmingham’s face. Then there are the one-scene-wonders, bank tellers and managers, waitresses and patrons, casino employees and gamblers. Each of them makes the most of their moment, the heroes of their own stories living their own lives, only coming into focus for us because they happen to cross paths with the main event.
It plays out by turns thrilling and suspenseful, but often at a relaxed downbeat, building at a slow, steady pace. The robberies are sudden, messy, scary, dangerous. The investigation is methodical and folksy. It’s told in a style that’s terse, matter-of-fact. Vast desert landscapes and run-down small towns are the new Western terrain. In the forgotten corners of the Great Recession, poverty, Chevron, and concealed carry permits are the constants. But it’s not just recent downturn. Factories have dried up. Family farms can’t make ends meet. One old man stares out across a quaint but deserted downtown and intones, “No one’s made a living here in 150 years.” Who can blame the robbers for getting creative about getting by? They steal from the bank like the bank is allowed to steal from them. And yet who can say that they shouldn’t pay for their sins? With a strong, steady hand the movie finds an exciting climax, and a resigned headshake of an ambiguous conclusion. The movie’s like an old narrative folk-country ballad where the lyrics might err on the side of clumsy and derivative, but the chords are strong, the personality is bright, and the sentiment rings true.