Hell or High Water
This is perhaps the first movie about robbing banks in which the customers have more guns than the robbers.
Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Rated MA 15+, 102 minutes
Some graffiti on a West Texas bank gives the tone, as two brothers wait for the manager to open up. ‘3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.’ We know instantly that this is post-2008, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, when seven million Americans lost their homes.
The men don ski masks and rob the Texas Midlands bank, not terribly well. ‘Y’all are new at this, I’m guessing,’ says the teller. Later in the day they rob another. An old cowboy is at the counter. One of the robbers asks if he has a gun. ‘Damn right I got a gun,’ he says. Stupid question.
This is perhaps the first movie about robbing banks in which the customers have more guns than the robbers. Welcome to Texas. The Scottish director David Mackenzie makes quiet fun of this, without losing the point. Several customers shoot at the bandits, even after they make clear they’re robbing the banks, not the customers. The only person who’s reluctant to carry a gun is the main character, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), an otherwise quiet farmer driven to desperate measures.
Toby’s older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is a different story. Fresh out of prison, he’s itching to hurt someone. Dialogue suggests he might have shot their brutal father as a youngster. Their mother died while he was in prison. If you are getting the idea that they’re on a last chance ride, you might be right.
The first bank they hit is in Archer City – a kind of movie clue. That northern Texas town is where Larry McMurtry grew up. His book The Last Picture Show, about the slow death of the old Texas, is set there and the famous movie based on it was filmed there, in 1971. Hell or High Water doesn’t have much in common, except perhaps its elegiac tone, the sense that whatever purpose these places once had is gone, and most of the people along with it. Those who are left have few choices. A number of vivid cameos illustrate that idea here.
Toby and Tanner are robbing banks for a reason. In Lubbock, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) thinks he knows why: they’re raising a certain amount, and only from one corporation. That means they’ll hit what is left of the Midlands branches until they get it. Hamilton and his Mexican-American deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) stake out a smaller branch and wait.
Hell or High Water is much more than a movie about robbing banks. It’s much more even than a very fine entry in the long line of outlaw road movies, going back through Bonnie and Clyde and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Jeff Bridges was in that one, as well as The Last Picture Show, and he’s the rock upon which MacKenzie builds this very fine film, an elegy for lost American values.
The script, brooding and wise and heading inexorably towards blood, is by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario. The original title was Comancheria, which is explained when an excited Tanner tells his brother that they’re just like the old Comanche, striking wherever they please. In an ironic twist to that idea, the brothers cross over into Oklahoma to launder their money in an Indian casino. So much for the old west: what’s left are the banks, the law, the poor and lots of rednecks with guns, looking for an excuse.
Bridges gives a very fine performance here as a wise old goat on what may be his last hunt before retirement. He’s wilier than a coyote and drier than a temperance meeting. He can see the sense in what these two boys are doing, but that won’t slow him down. Pine and Foster are just as strong in their roles, giving the film a broad moral landscape in which to consider the idea of justice.
David McKenzie has made eight previous features, most of them in his native Scotland. His work here is exemplary. His direction is unobtrusive, economical, with no hint of the archness that characterises modern action. He just keeps building the power into the characters, so that we dread what’s coming. There’s not a moment out of place, not a shot that stays too long. If he makes a better film is his career, he’ll be lucky.
Hell or High Water