There’s a lot of populist boogeymen in the news today, ranging from “evil” corporations to “scary” foreigners. But if there is one straw man that most everyone can agree upon, it’s predatory banks and the effect it has on entire communities.
That is exactly who brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) target in “Hell or High Water”, a modern-day bank robber Western. This west Texas tale skillfully combines several genres and creates a sure to be crowd pleasing thriller that is as exciting as it is unexpectedly funny.
The opening salvo, which includes a shot of graffiti reading “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”, thrusts us right into Toby and Tanner’s scheme as they rob a bank when it opens. They quickly show their lack of experience, which is hilariously pointed out by bank clerk, Elsie (brilliant character actress Dale Dickey).
Toby and Tanner are quickly off to another bank and it becomes obvious that this duo has a clear goal in mind. This is noted by soon to retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is sent to investigate this thought to be small time scheme. Hamilton is joined by his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose Comanche-Mexican heritage is something that Hamilton repeatedly and consistently mocks in uncomfortably delicious ways.
The plot unfurls at a perfect pace with nearly every character’s backstory and motivations coming to light in very real ways. From brothers to partners to estranged fathers, there is more depth, development, and relationship building contained in ten minutes of this movie than most movies could hope to have in their entirety.
With writing like this (from Taylor Sheridan, writer of “Sicario”), it’s borderline impossible for this skilled of a cast to fail and “Hell or High Water” may be the career highlight for everyone involved.
Chris Pine is at a level that he’s never come close to approaching. He absolutely nails this portrayal of a quiet Texas loner who is fully aware that he’s in a morally precarious situation. His back is against the wall and Pine’s anguish over doing what he knows is wrong is easily readable at ever moment.
It would be lazy for Sheridan and Ben Foster to treat Tanner Howard like a crazed redneck that is hellbent on law breakin’. Sure, Foster is brash, but he stays grounded and never becomes a cartoonish southerner. This is the cocky, yet understated type of performance that Best Supporting Actor awards come of and hopefully, Foster is remembered for it in three or four months.
This may be hard to believe, but Jeff Bridges may have reached a new career high. This Texas Ranger is a mix of his boozy country singer from “Crazy Heart” and brave cowboy from “True Grit.” His drawl is so fantastic, so believable, that it is almost like he’s created some form of high art that can only be described as “Texspearean.”
In short, a Best Actor Oscar nomination should be in the cards for Bridges.
Bridges, Pine, and Foster are working with what, barring a major upset, will be a Best Original Screenplay nominee in Taylor Sheridan and a Best Director nominee in David Mackenzie. Sheridan’s “Sicario” screenplay was criminally overlooked, but there is no possible way to avoid this work of brilliance.
Every element you could want in a movie is there and Mackenzie puts them on screen with subtlety, simplicity, and ease. This is a director and writer tour de force that should not be ignored and begs for these two to team up again.
Finally, the main character of “Hell or High Water” is Texas. All the charm, the ugliness, the sass, and the beauty of the state is on display in an unflinching and unapologetic way. This is how Texans sound, how they think, and how most live their lives and even the bank robbers don’t apologize for doing what they need to in order to survive.
“Hell or High Water” is a modern classic and when the dust settles and that quiet, final scene ends, it’s hard to not immediately want to spend another two hours with all of these characters.