Hell or High Water is an old-fashioned type of genre film that isn’t trying to make a big statement or even be original, but just wants to tell a story as well as possible. It’s a tale of bank robbers in west Texas, a couple of tough country boys played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster who plan to save their farm from foreclosure by stealing relatively small amounts until they have enough to pay off the same bank that they’ve been stealing from. Foster plays the crazy older brother, Tanner, just out of prison and looking for kicks. Pine is the younger brother Toby, much more cautious, although he’s the one who had the idea and asked his brother’s help. The bank robbery scenes are as gripping and as messy as you would imagine them in real life. But the film is even better at the quiet moments between jobs, when the film patiently allows the tension in the brothers’ lives play out.
Assigned to catch whoever is pulling these jobs are two veteran Texas Rangers played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges demonstrates why he’s one of our best actors. He plays Marcus Hamilton as a relaxed, methodical old cuss who teases his partner, a Native American, in ways that are more obnoxious than endearing. The way Bridges walks, the way he mumbles like his mouth is full of marbles, everything is perfect. It’s like a lesson in how to create a character on screen.
Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, born in west Texas, so he knows what that desolate part of the country looks like, and directed by David Mackenzie, who is from Scotland, but hasn’t let that limit his choice of subjects or locations in his film career so far. One of the underlying currents of the film is the economic disaster visited on all the working people in rural Texas, with signs everywhere on the road offering mortgage relief, payday loans, and other symptoms of desperation. The two brothers aren’t very likable, which is a good thing. Ben Foster’s character is nothing but trouble, although he can be pretty funny at times. Pine does a different kind of acting then you usually see from him, melancholy and low-key.
Now, I’m not too fond of the way directors use songs on the sidetrack for a shortcut through transitions—here Mackenzie uses country music, but at least they’re good songs by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and others. The widescreen photography is almost too good-, and the story has few surprises, but like I said, this is a film aiming at telling a good story without much fancy stuff, and there’s a place for that in the movies, or at least there should be. Most of all, the picture bravely adheres to a basic sadness as the reason underlying all the action, and this is a welcome relief from the usual excitement for its own sake kind of cinema. Hell or High Water is a solid bit of American storytelling: simple, but tasty as a T-bone steak.