Movie Review: "Hell or High Water," with Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges
Hell or High Water declares the kind of movie it is going to be, the kind of message it is trying to send, almost immediately. It has razor-edged focus, and everything it does is in service to the kind of desperation and frustration captured in the scrawled graffiti on the side of a small bank in a sleepy Texas town in a dilapidated part of the country: "3 tours in Iraq but no bailouts for people like us." No nothing for "people like us," really.
The film opens with a bank robbery by brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, of Warcraft) and Toby (Chris Pine, of Star Trek Beyond) Howard, who get sassed during their first holdup by a bank teller who can sense their jitters immediately: "Y'all are new at this, I'm guessing," she says. The reaction from a townie at another bank is even more incredulous ("You boys robbing the bank? Y'all aren't even Mexicans!"), but Tanner and Toby don't think they're doing anything wrong in their swiping only small bills: "We ain't stealing from you. We're stealing from the bank."
Yup, they're modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing money from a local chain until they reach a certain sum -- $43,000 -- and can use it to reclaim the Howard Family Ranch, property swindled away from their dead mother. But even with all the cash, Tanner and Toby can measure their life more in things lost than in things gained: Tanner spent years in prison after an aggravated assault. Toby was let go of his job in the natural gas industry and then failed to build a relationship with his two sons because of missed child support payments to his ex-wife. Their town in West Texas is sinking all around them, with signs like "Debt Relief," "Closing Down," "In Debt?" and "Fast Cash" everywhere you look.
Remember what Rust Cohle said in True Detective about how "This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading"? That's what the Howards' West Texas is like: a smudged-out corner of a map.
Their streak of luck hits a snag, though, when Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, of Seventh Son) gets interested in their spree. Hamilton may be about to retire -- a thought relished by his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, of The Lone Ranger), who Marcus abuses with insults like "half-breed" and "Injun" -- but he's afraid of the life awaiting him, of a house empty because of a dead wife and a front porch that lulls him with complacency.
"All these towns are dead," the rangers say of where the Howards are robbing banks, but they're only half-right. Tanner and Toby aren't quite done yet, and whatever stands in their way -- manipulative banks led by faceless, opportunistic men; Texas residents all too happy to put their conceal-carry permits to use; and rangers trying to retire in a blaze of glory -- probably won't be standing upright very long.
Hell or High Water is written by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote last year's exceptional Sicario, and just like that Emily Blunt/Benicio del Toro vehicle did, this film throws you into a certain kind of American lifestyle without any preamble whatsoever. The production design is aggressive, but despite every obvious choice (everyone wears cowboy boots and drives pickup trucks), the dusty malaise that infects every town feels lived-in, genuine, and real.
There is undeniable strength, too, in all three lead performances. Bridges and Foster do exactly what you would expect them to do, but Foster in particular has perfected the damaged-crazy-guy thing so well that you'll be thrilled every time he does something, well, damaged and crazy. For Pine, this role is a change of pace from his starring role as Captain Kirk in Star Trek or his pretty-guy roles in Z for Zachariah or Into the Woods, but he imbues his character with great depth. A scene where he barely flirts with a diner waitress played by the vivacious Katy Mixon crackles with charisma from both of them, and another scene where he flies out of nowhere to Foster's defense, defending the older brother who has stepped back into crime for him, is unforgettable.
Early in Hell or High Water, when they're discussing the possibility of being caught, Tanner knowingly says to Toby, "I never met nobody got away with anything, ever. You?" That sort of fatalistic poetry is what this movie traffics in, and it has it in spades. When the film is nearing its end, one character says to another, "I been poor my whole life. So were my parents, their parents before them. It's like a disease ... infects every person you know."
Everyone in Hell or High Water is struggling to survive -- either financially or spiritually -- but the film treats all of them, criminals or lawmen, with respect. Everybody makes their choices for their own reasons. Hell or High Water shows you what they are and who you are, and lets you judge for yourself -- to tense, aching, and memorable results.