102 min. | R
Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger became outlaw heroes in part from public hatred of the institutions they robbed: banks. In Hell or High Water, a fictional story set in contemporary Texas, the outlaw heroes prey on banks, specifically branches of Texas Midland Bank, the institution holding the mortgage on the family ranch and eager to foreclose. There’s a possibility that the scrubby acres might conceal an oil well, you see.
The brain behind the crime spree, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), is resentful over the bank’s treatment of his recently deceased mother. He addresses the tellers as “ma’am” when he orders them to empty their cash drawers. Older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has been in jail most of his life. He’s the muscle, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt.
The string of robberies catches the interest of a Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Three weeks from retirement, Marcus easily could have kept his feet on his desk before collecting his pension, but the case interests him. So he sets out for the West Texas flatlands with his relatively new partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whom he teases relentlessly but without rancor for his Mexican heritage. Even Mexico’s preference for soccer over American football doesn’t escape Marcus’ ire. He tells Alberto that soccer originated with the Aztecs kicking skulls around the dirt.
As the brothers, Pine and Foster invest their characters with believable intensity. Toby is sullen and determined, his emotions tightly corked, while Tanner is the wild-eyed Texan with the rebel yell, unafraid of death and willing to take an army with him to hell.
Despite their strong performances, Bridges holds the center of gravity as Malcolm, chewing his words like a tough strand of beef jerky and gazing back at the world with grumpy distrust and a keen eye for character.
Hell or High Water is suffused with a sense of loss. The ranches are withering and the towns are decaying; the young don’t want to work the land and the old are fixing to die. Even the heroic outlawry of the masked and hooded Howard brothers looks like the final hurrah of olden times.
“Seems foolish—the days of robbing banks and trying to live off that. It’s long gone,” an old cowhand tells Malcolm. The landscape is as rusty as the tin shacks and abandoned natural gas wells along the roadside.
Directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water works as a buddy picture for its depiction of Malcolm and Alberto, and as a classic story of brothers opposite in temperament but tied by fraternal devotion. Most of all, it’s a mechanized present-day western with faster steeds and deadlier weaponry than anything imagined by Wyatt Erp or the James Gang.
Hell or High Water is an archetypal tale of men whose values of social order versus personal vengeance are understandable but incompatible.