The Texas of Hell or High Water is a sweaty, mythical place. You can practically feel the heat radiating off it in your theater, taking you to a modern Old West. Anyone who’s ever taken a detour through anything but metropolitan Texas knows what it’s like. More Mad Max than Dallas, Hell or High Water is a Recession Western, a film that uses the death of the American Dream that the Great Recession signified for so many to craft an outlaw world, albeit one we recognize rather than fantasize.
The story of two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who embark on a series of bank robberies to pay back Texas Midlands, the bank that is soon to foreclose on their late mother’s property. Of course, they’ll be paying them back with the money they robbed from each branch of the Texas Midlands Bank. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is the Texas Ranger tasked with bringing the men to justice.
The neo-Western can be a dubious thing, at least in my eyes. The Western as it exists as a genre is about nostalgic metaphor, of piecing together the myths of our past to reveal what they can tell about our present. Taking the genre out of the past loses the nostalgia, becoming more stark reality than fable. In that way, I’ve always really liked westerns which remove us from our past and our reality, and create the same tropes in sci-fi or fantasy worlds. It creates the myth all over again.
That’s what I really like about Hell or High Water. The time and place is not so far removed from our own. It’s under a decade ago, taking place during the throes of the Great Recession and the devastating effect it had on the small town, especially the quiet resignation that many had already being poor. This is a film about the cycle of poverty that time made us all feel, and what it was like for those trying to get out, for those who had experienced it for generations.
Yet it does all that in a setting that feels mythic. Director David McKenzie keeps Texas from feeling like a place that we can recognize. He avoids the big cities, and keeps the iconography firmly in the past. Men in horses and dressed like cowboys abound. There’s something equally modern and decades in the past about this Texas. It’s a place that leans into what we think about when we think about Texas and makes it feel like a part of that history and a part of something grander.
It becomes a part of that struggle. Taylor Sheridan’s script is tight on a narrative level. Wringing out every tension, telegraphing every twist without ever feeling like it’s showing its hand, and keeping the pace tight and thrilling no matter what. The characters he’s created are perhaps the best part, occupying the space between realistic and archetypal in a way that’s fascinating to watch.
But it’s also great on a thematic level. Hell or High Water asks whether or not crime is justifiable in a society that is built on lawlessness. There’s a reason they don’t hit the banks in the bastions of civilization, where law and order might exist. Our robbers exist in abandoned society, where it’s just not worthwhile to keep things together. They exist in the Wild West, the apocalypse. The lawmen here are outsiders, sticking their nose where they don’t belong. And vice versa, the lawmen feel like they’re trying hold onto a place they’ve already lost.
I can gush about the story all I want to, but I want to also sing the praises of the acting in this film. Not necessarily Ben Foster. He does a job any and everyone could recognize as strong, but which hits a note for me he’s been playing too often as of late, which is the “KOOKY AND DANGEROUS” dude. Foster is a chameleonic actor, so it’s a real shame to seem hitting the same thing again. He’s truly fine here, but he simply too often feels like “too much” for this movie.
I can’t say that for Chris Pine here, who I believe gives an all-timer for him, a role he’s always been built for. The shameful of Chris Pine is that he’s a character actor in a leading man’s body. Too objectively handsome to play grimy con-men and small supporting characters, but too good at the details to go really broad. He’s never gonna be Tom Cruise, able to imbue big broad leading characters with enough specific detail to be compelling. Pine needs the details to exist so he can put himself into them.
Pine is phenomenal here, playing Toby as a true outlaw hero, a man who chooses to be outside the law only to do good. He wrestles with the decisions, there is no evil in him. He wants to cure the sickness of poverty that has plagued him and his family the whole of his life. We want to root for him and we know that he is doing wrong. He’s an open book on his face and a closed book in his actions. There’s a phenomenal scene where a prostitute hits on him, and Pine’s eagerness of body language sings, conveying so much with so little. He’s a lonely man, one imbued with a solemn purpose.
Jeff Bridges is also fantastic, essentially playing another version of Rooster Cogburn. He’s a grizzled grandpa, so much fun to watch, but so good when he’s gotta take the character from crotchety to serious. Absolutely fantastic work. A late-game scene between him and Pine is a masterwork of tension and acting and writing.
I would also be remiss to not mention a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, one of my favorite scoring duos and one of my favorite recording artists working. It’s epic and sweeping without ever being overwhelming. Give it a listen, and also give a listen to everything Nick Cave has ever touched.
Hell or High Water is just a damned fine film. The kind of movie that begs to get you out in the theaters to see its impressive vistas and take in the details of their faces.. Howard Hawks said a great film has three great scenes and no bad ones. Even if Ben Foster’s performance leaves me a little cold, this a movie that has three great scenes and no bad ones. This is the kind of movie that begs you to see it, so get out and give it a look.