Hell or High Water

Ruud Rating
Hell or High Water
4 Shakespeares

David Mackenzie (2016)

Apparently Taylor Sheridan’s script for Hell or High Water kicked around Hollywood for years before anybody had the sense to pick it up.  This raises the question of why somebody would think a remake of Ben-Hur was a good idea (“Hey, we can do the chariot race in 3D now!”) but didn’t want to take a chance on an intelligent, character-driven, smartly plotted and socially relevant script by the writer of the much-lauded Sicario (2015). Kudos to Film 44, Oddlot Entertainment, and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment for getting the picture made, in time to wow audiences at Cannes this year, and to come out in limited release two weeks ago in the United States.

If your first glimpse of the film makes you think of the Coen Brothers, you are not alone. The bleak West Texas landscape (the film was actually shot in New Mexico) seems a direct allusion to the Coens’ magnum opus No Country for Old Men, and the intersecting plots involving both lawbreakers and law enforcement personnel who hunt them seems reminiscent of that film, and of Fargo. And there are the quirky incidents that hearken back to the diner scene in Fargo, such as the lunch at the “world famous” T-Bone diner in which a cantankerous waitress wants to know “what don’t you want” from the customers—because they are going to get a T-bone steak cooked medium rare, but she will allow them to choose what they don’t want from the available sides.

The presence of Jeff Bridges might be another reason to think of the Coen brothers: he returns to the West here as an updated Rooster Cogburn, a wizened and wily old Texas Ranger in pursuit of a pair of bank robbers. But his wiliness is hidden behind a lackadaisical exterior that recalls to some extent The Big Lebowski’s Dude. In another amazing Jeff Bridges fact, the first bank robbed in the movie is in Archer, Texas, setting of one of Bridges’ earliest screen triumphs, The Last Picture Show.

Hell or High Water opens with that first robbery. We start with a shot of the town, its streets deserted, buildings boarded up, the waste land poised to swallow it up. A woman gets out of her car and lights up a cigarette. On the wall behind her, painted in red, is a message in graffiti that says “Two tours in Afghanistan, but no bailouts for us.” The whole barren landscape captures the mood of resentment at the economic disasters of the great recession, the government support of the banks that were “too big to fail” and perceived desertion of the individuals who were not, and failed miserably, losing their savings or their jobs or both. From its opening shot the film catches the mood of the dispossessed in America, and their growing bitterness.

We quickly learn that the woman is a bank teller who is opening the Texas Midlands Bank branch in Archer, for when she opens the door she is rushed by two men in ski masks—well, not really ski masks, but wool caps pulled down over their faces with eye holes manually cut out of them—because, of course, these guys could never afford to be skiers, and why would anybody need a ski mask in West Texas anyway? The thieves wave guns around and want cash from the teller’s drawer, but they seem pretty amateurish, as if this is pretty clearly not their normal line of work. At the same time, they want only what they can get form the cash drawers, and no bills over $100, which will make it virtually impossible for anyone to trace the cash. While they are not adept at the actual performance of the robbery, this hold-up has been meticulously planned. Somebody has thought this all through.

The robbers, it turns out, are the brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). They have been recently reunited after Tanner has finished a ten-year prison stint for manslaughter, during which Toby has been taking care of their dying mother while his own marriage was breaking apart. Now divorced from his wife and estranged from his two sons, out of work and facing foreclosure on his mother’s ranch, Toby has concocted a desperate plan to raise the $43,000 owed on the family land by robbing various branches of the very bank whose threatened foreclosure promises to destroy his future, and that of his sons. With the aid of his brother and a plan to stay off the FBI radar by robbing only cash drawers of a bank that has branches only within the state, and by laundering the money by running it through a casino, he seems well on the way to pulling it off.

What Toby’s plan does not allow for, however, is veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who, having just received his “mandatory retirement” letter, is itching to solve one more big case before he turns in his badge and gets put out to pasture. With his half-Comanche/half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), he works out what the brothers are doing and where their next robbery is likely to be, and the film moves relentlessly toward its inevitable conclusion.

The genius of the script is really the fact that we as the audience are divided. We want to see Toby and Tanner avoid losing their ranch, and recognize the justice of their using money taken from the same bank that threatens them to pay off their mortgage and taxes and save their future. There is an undeniable justice to this, and several of the Texans hurt by the same economic forces and greedy bankers—from Toby’s lawyer to a group of old men in a diner—are rooting for the Howard brothers to stick it to the Man.

At the same time, we also recognize the efforts of the forces representing law and order, who know that, good times or bad times, anarchy cannot be an answer and violence will invariably beget violence. Marcus’s job has always been to uphold and defend the law. Justice is a more esoteric subject, and if that is what Toby is after, it is not on Marcus’s radar. He’s not exactly Javert chasing after Jean Valjean—Marcus is far less self-righteous and Toby more willing to break the law in the service of justice for himself—but there is a hint of it here.

The most sustained pleasure in watching the film is watching how the two sets of protagonists parallel and play off of one another. Pine and Foster have a believable screen chemistry, probably honed in part by their teaming up earlier this year in The Finest Hours. Toby’s biggest handicap is his brother, who is a loose cannon, unpredictable and liable to fly off the handle at any moment and sabotage Toby’s careful planning. But Tanner proves essential in the end.

For Marcus, the steady unflappable Alberto is his greatest asset. Though he spends most of their time together baiting his partner with insensitive and sometimes downright racist insults about his Native American background, Alberto is impassive and occasionally gives back as good as he gets, recognizing, as the audience does, that these are warped expressions of his affection for his partner. It is Alberto who utters the film’s most memorable lines of social commentary: 150 years ago, he observes, all the land on which these bleak towns survive belonged to his people. But the grandparents of the current townspeople drove his ancestors off and took the land. Now, the banks are doing the same thing to the descendants of those initial settlers as they did to the Indians.

Hell or High Water has a powerful script, impressive cinematography of the great barren landscapes of the southwest, and a hard-hitting exploration of contemporary social problems. But the performances are what really set this movie apart. Foster is believably undisciplined and unpredictable. Birmingham is sympathetically stoic and sometimes exasperated. Pine shows he is more than James T. Kirk but can dazzle in a role full of depth and complexity. And Bridges? He is what we’ve come to expect, hitting every facet of his character with the apparent ease of a true virtuoso that shows why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. I really think I’ve got to give this one four Shakespeares.