A magnificent modern-day western.
Hell or High Water tells the story of Toby (Chris Pine), a divorced dad who will do anything to secure a prosperous future for his children. This future’s fate is tied with that of his family’s farm, and he must save it from foreclosure. Toby enlists the help of his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), ex-con, to aid him in a series of bank robberies in order to prevent said foreclosure. Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a close to retirement age Texas Ranger, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is assigned the duty of bringing them in.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) described Hell or High Water as his love letter to the state of Texas, and this is very evident in the film. Hell or High Water simply oozes with character and authenticity, and it’s apparent in every single scene. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) plays the film like a western, and contains much of the classic iconography associated with that, but viewed through the lens of modern-day. The Texas Rangers will visit a saloon, but instead of a hive of scum and villainy like a classic western film, it’s a rundown restaurant in a small town. The towns folk will chase the bank robbers out-of-town, but instead of on horseback it’s the bed of a pick up truck. There’s racial tension between Marcus and Alberto due to Marcus being an old white guy, and Alberto a Native American. It’s these classic western tropes that are updated to the modern era that give this film its fun and fresh feeling.
The special thing about Hell or High Water is the fact that it starts three separate character actors in all of its leading roles. Chris Pine’s Toby is the closest thing the film has to a straight man, he has the most relatable goals in wanting to save his family, but he still goes all in with his portrayal of a reluctant, Texan bank robber. Pine’s enjoyable to watch and is able to keep the pair of bank robbers healthily grounded.
Ben Foster’s Tanner on the other hand is delightfully nuts, he’ll steal from who ever he wants to steal from, fuck whoever he wants to fuck, and fight anyone he wants to fight. Foster adds an extra dose of danger and unpredictability to the character, which makes Tanner extremely entertaining to watch. Unlike his brother, Tanner is not reluctant at all about robbing banks, which leads to he and Toby butting heads often. Pine and Foster convinced you that they are brothers, as the pair exhibits the classic calm/crazy dynamic, but there is an undercurrent of loyalty that is felt throughout, which is made palpable by the amazing chemistry Foster and Pine possess.
Jeff Bridges is fantastic as the grizzled Marcus. He’s personifies the image of an aged Texas Ranger to a T, warts and all. Bridges disappears into Marcus, and his performance is respectfully genuine. His somewhat racist rapport with Birmingham’s Alberto is both hilarious and often over the line, but more often than not Birmingham will fire back with an equally discourteous remark regarding the “old white man”. Their chemistry together is great as well, and they too have an authentic sense of loyalty to one another.
This sets up an interesting parallel between the robbers and the rangers, as the pairs almost act as mirrors of each other. The film does such a great job of humanizing their characters that you find yourself empathizing and rooting for both sides, which makes their inevitable clash that much more nerve-wracking and exciting. When shots are eventually fired, you feel each and every bullet. The climactic shootout is intense as hell, as I found myself supremely invested in both sides of the conflict. I wanted both sides to achieve their goal, and knowing that peace wouldn’t come to pass just added to the drama.
Hell or High Water is fun, exciting, and a breath of fresh air in what’s been a terrible summer movie season. The film lives and breathes in a grey area of morality, which allows for some genuine surprises in how things turn out. Funny when it needs to be, intense when it needs to be, and brutal as hell at some points. Hell or High Water is a fine example of a modern western done right, and could have only be pulled off in a state as unique as Texas.