Overview: Two small town brothers become bank robbers to save the family farm in West Texas only to find the law hot on their tail. CBS Films; 2016; Rated R; 102 minutes.
New Country for Old Genre: You’re a waitress… Okay, so technically you’re that actress from Eastbound and Down, but today you’re playing a waitress. It’s a slow day. A crummy diner— not as bad as that one down south; only thing they serve is T-bone with a side of green beans. Still, it’s a slow day, a crummy diner, and every day in this crummy dinner is slow anyway. So what’s the point? Your eyes begin to steadily… glaze… over… Hmmm? Who’s this fella? Never seen him before. He’s holding his empty glass out into the aisle like a desert flower waiting for rain— a move that your coworkers might read as belligerent and testy, but you just think the fella’s got a lot on his mind. You’re right. You move to refill his drink, and— like osmosis— an easy conversation strikes up between you two. What’s troublin’ him? You’re curious. Job troubles, you knew it was. Seems he was in the Natural Gas industry. Seems he ain’t anymore. You tilt your head back a little, say there might an opening for a chef. He smiles and shrugs a little. You come back a few minutes later to clean the table, collect the check, check the tip. It’s two hundred dollars. Half an hour passes and suddenly there are eight police types in the diner. They say they would like you to hand the money over— it’s evidence. Welcome to the world of Hell or High Water.
West Texas is the star of the show in Hell or High Water. When reveling in milieu as the aforementioned Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his far more experienced brother Tanner (Ben Foster) move cross-country—pursued in turn by two rangers after them for the bank robberies they’re committing along the way, the film is at its strongest. When we step back and consider the full picture, then it’s a little dicier.
Hell or High Water has been conceived as a sort of (ugh) Dawn of the Planet of The Outlaws, splitting time equally between the criminals and the cops—never privileging one perspective over the other, in an attempt to say something about the fundamentally pointless nature of violence. It’s all so level-headed and fair that the whole enterprise flirts with boredom on more than a few occasions. After all, an all-seeing perspective is also no perspective at all. Weird coming from writer Taylor Sheridan, whose Sicario was about as name-the-fucking-names barbarous as this is “villains? man, time is a villain” polite; moral ambiguity is greater than moral equity. It’s a screenplay that crackles with memorable dialogue and fun grace-notes, but still ends up feeling curiously timid. At one point it’s asked out loud whether-or-not the older of the two rangers (Jeff Bridges, looking very unhealthy) is drawing the manhunt out because he wants to delay his upcoming retirement; a more confident scribe might have left that question to the audience.
Foster, Pussycat! Mug! Mug!: The performances are similarly variable throughout Hell or High Water. On the bank-robber side of things, Ben Foster’s reckless Tanner is a bit of an earsore, although one could argue deliberately so. As Toby, Chris Pine ably hits his beats, but leans back on his wounded-puppy eyes more than is required. Our rangers are terrific, though. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, the former often faux-racist berating the later for his Native-Mexican heritage, exude an easy chemistry that ensures all of their scenes delight.
Hell or High Water is a film that digs its heels in over the course of the run time, steadily accumulating pathos as the brothers build their cash pile higher-and-high. The reveal as to why the seemingly clean-cut Toby has suddenly dived in to the deep-end of armed robbery is demonstrably boring, but it does gain a sort of tawdry social relevance once we reach the inevitable, wrenching endgame. That scene— finally pitting Bridges and Pine against each other after an entire film spent on a collision course— is one of the greatest of the year— mysterious and nerve-wracking in equal measure, with a punchline that had me exiting the theater in tears.
Overall: On first viewing, Hell or High Water struck me as a film that might improve immensely on re-watch, when I could worry less about cliches, and zero in a little deeper on the quiet Texan night. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Like a rocking chair on a rickety porch. Inside is an oversized teddy-bear that takes up half a hallway. Outside is a wind-mill and an oil pump. They don’t stop moving. You might, though.
Featured Image: CBS Films