David Mackenzie’s compelling cops-and-robbers Western, Hell or High Water, recalls the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men; but rather than a meditation on mortality and chance, Hell or High Water, also set in West Texas, has a richer, more sympathetic populist humanism. Mackenzie’s compassion for the setting’s rural shop-owners, diner waitresses, ranchers and cattle rustlers, coupled with an appreciation for their historical tribulations engendered by environment, war, poverty and greed, makes his above-average crime drama of fraternal stickup men a work of tense but unassuming gravity. He gives it the moral weight of history repeating itself.
The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, chronicles the criminal exploits of the Howard brothers: stoic divorcee Toby (Chris Pine) and loudmouth parolee Tanner (Ben Foster). In the first scene, they knock off the local branch of a prominent Texas bank, but they are smart enough to do so early, before the crowds arrive, and they take only the smaller, untraceable bills from the tellers’ drawers. Instead of laying low afterward, they move on to another branch down the road, and semi-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) recognizes the pattern and attempts, with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), to predict their next target, where he’ll ambush them. The Howard boys are raising money for mysterious purposes, which puts them on a violent collision course with Hamilton somewhere in the Southwest.
That’s the premise, but the actors whittle distinct characters from these simple archetypes. Bridges’ Hamilton, with gums stuffed with tobacco and sunflower seeds, has one cheek on the rocking chair of retirement, but his loyalty and integrity make it impossible for him to let the past rest. Bridges plays him like Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, with his typical shabby insouciance, which is remarkable in its mixture of awkwardness and grace. Foster seems born to play deep-fried loose-cannons. Tanner may be a murderous career criminal, but thanks to Foster, we understand that he has protected his younger brother his whole life (often from their abusive father) and won’t stop now. Toby, quiet and handsome, with a face weathered and browned by sun and dirt, is the film’s salt-of-the-earth center, and Pine gives him a noble conscience tested by desperation.
It takes a good director to elicit these portrayals, and Mackenzie is equally good with his camera. Not stylized like many Westerns and neo-Westerns, he shoots with a photorealistic daylight crispness that lends the timbre a plainspoken verisimilitude. The director often allows scenes to unfold in long takes or static two-shots. In the opening bank robbery setup, or the closing landscape photography of high grass and oil derricks, we see the precise, classical choreography of his camera moves. The influence of such reserved sagebrush masters as John Ford becomes apparent in homages to iconic images from My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, when Hamilton leans back on his chair on a wooden porch, or when Toby stands outside a homestead’s open doorway. Mackenzie has a solid, unpretentious approach that gives his story some poetry.
As I alluded to before, Hell or High Water has more on its mind than bank robberies. The brothers’ master plan involves stealing money back from banks which they believe have wronged them and other local people. The film draws connections between the perceived misdeeds of callous corporations — who, the film argues, conquer small towns and oppress small town people — and the larger, historical injustices of the American West. At one point, Hamilton’s partner, Alberto, who’s of half-Mexican and half-Native American ancestry, recalls how federal armies once overtook the Comanche’s land and displaced the populace, much in the same way conglomerates, be they banks, oil companies or discount supermarkets, unsettle modern residents. He sees it as a never-ending cycle of oppression. It’s fitting that when the boys need to launder their ill-gotten gains, they wash the money at an Indian casino.
Hell or High Water may sometimes oversimplify the economics, but it creates urgent thematic links between the crime saga of its characters and the bigger contexts of their situation. It’s also scored throughout by the stubbly roots rock of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose twang and depth grant the proceedings an authentic outlaw flavor. Songs on the soundtrack like “My Cold Dead Hands” speak to the complicated moral dilemma of Hell or High Water. While a film about powerless people taking back power, the conclusion, when the Howard boys and Hamilton at last come face-to-face, questions how one can live with the sacrifices that such supposed reparations require. And it makes the case that the West, in some places, is still being settled as it always was, by the people who live there.