LEAVE IT to a Scot to deliver the next great American western.
It’s possible director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) had the distance and perspective to depict Hell or High Water’s depressed West Texas towns and dust-dry plains with unvarnished truth. Maybe he recognized, from across the pond, a universal struggle in the specific plight of brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they try to hang on to their father’s ranch. Perhaps he sensed the timeliness of a story that depicts white American men running out of time, money, and land. More likely, Mackenzie had Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) superb script to navigate a path around the obvious men-with-guns clichés that make up Hell or High Water’s western-noir milieu. Whatever the case may be, it’s resulted in a great film.
The Howard brothers don’t need much money, but they do need some, for reasons that unfold beautifully in High Water’s narrative, so the less said about them, the better. Tanner’s been on both sides of prison walls, and he convinces Toby that robbing banks is the way to go. If Hell or High Water had been a simple heist flick, it would have been enough. But the stick-’em-ups and getaways are part of the film’s larger, beautifully embroidered pattern of desperation.
A pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are on the Howards’ tail, methodically piecing together the details of the case. We’re privy to both sides of this tiny crime spree, and the film simultaneously empathizes with the perpetrators and the law—without letting the crooks off the hook or depicting the men with badges as shining heroes.
Tanner is the loose cannon a story like this requires, but Foster tones down his usual flamboyance for what might be the greatest performance Sean Penn never gave. (You can actually see why Robin Wright liked the guy.) Pine is even better—a revelation for an actor who’s relied on pretty-boy charm to skate through some pretty uninteresting performances. Here he quietly embodies every part of Toby, from his outward sorrowful stare to his silently seething undercarriage.
Bridges, meanwhile, is at his peak. This is an actor who, in his sunset years, has given us definitive performance after definitive performance (The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, True Grit). And yet Hell or High Water might be his very best work; I suspect years from now, this is the performance he’ll be remembered for. His Marcus Hamilton is the epitome of a cliché, to be sure—a grumpy Texas Ranger weeks away from retirement, whose racist bantering with his Mexican/Native American partner Alberto reveals how much of a relic he is. And yet there’s warmth and truth to Bridges’ characterization.
The story unfolds in abandoned Texas towns and the even emptier cattle ranches outside of them. Hell or High Water’s landscapes have been gutted by oil companies and big banks, their white residents run off by debt, much in the way natives were run off by warfare, disease, and racism years ago. There’s some speechifying about the current-day plight of the American cowboy, but while this could have easily come across as No Country for Old Men Lite, Hell or High Water is rooted in real-world frustration as opposed to Cormac McCarthy’s elemental fight between human nature and pitch-dark evil.
I’ve probably made Hell or High Water sound like a tedious civics lesson. It isn’t. It’s much more exciting and funny than I’ve suggested—suspenseful and thrilling, too. This is a movie so perfectly paced, so generous in the portrayal of its characters, so understated and intelligent and incisive that it’s painful and lovely to watch.