Over a hand of cards, Ben Foster’s Tanner stares daggers at a rival player. “Don’t chase me, Comanche,” he taunts, pushing a healthy pile of chips towards the pot, bloodlust flaring in his pupils. Comanche chases. And wins. Tanner slinks away, tail defiantly untucked. The chip-rich champion carnivorously confronts him, “Do you know what Comanche means?” Violence seems imminent. It hovers; an invisible, palpable force. “Enemy to everyone,” the Comanche growls. Tanner stares back dead-eyed, unsure if this confrontation spells death. Not seeming to care either way. Pimple-inducing tension streaks through the scene like nudists at a Pride parade. Sweat drips down the screen. “You know what that makes me?” Tanner’s response stabs, barbed as a butterfly knife. “A fucking Comanche.”
Taylor Sheridan’s piercing script for Hell of High Water is plum full of teeth-chattering standoffs and this off-the-cuff run-in serves to highlight the ache of distrust permeating the world Sheridan and director David Mackenzie have presented. It’s not the first, and certainly not the last, needlessly hostile confrontation – just minutes later a ratchedy waitress at the rundown T-Bone Diner accosts two customers before they have a chance to consider ordering anything but the T-Bone steak, medium rare – and Sheridan and Mackenzie squeeze each scene for all the seedy, uncomfortable juice it’s got. They worship turmoil. Hunt it like truffles.
Just last year Sheridan proved a virtuoso at eliciting hostile unease in Denis Villenue’s outstanding Sicario and he’s sharpened his disquieting pencils for Hell or High Water. While Sicario purposefully lacked an emotional heartbeat, opting instead to paint a hellish portrait of despair and entropy through the kaleidoscopic lens of the War on Drugs, Hell or High Water has a throbbing emotional core, explored through a pair of masculine relationships that are as complex as they are archetypal.
The primary duo is the aforementioned Tanner, an ex-convict and lout, and younger brother Toby (Chris Pine) who functions as the film’s narrative pivot point. The siblings form a kind of outlaw ying-and-yang as they make their way through West Texas, robbing a string of Texas Midlands branches. Tanner functions as the brutish enforcer – the skull-cracker, the fear-monger, the assault-weapon-toter – while Toby represents the cautious schemer – advocating patience and prudence over all else. Per Toby’s game plan, they always strike early in the morning, prior to customers’ arriving, and only take small bills, so as to dodge the unwanted dye pack.
Bank robbing brothers are no great revelation for the film medium but the political specificity that motivates them, their family farm having been repossessed by the very institutions they pilfer from, aids in giving Hell or High Water a timely, poignant edge. There’s no happy accident to the fact that as the two trek long stretches of dusty Texan highway, debt assistance billboards crop up just as often as foreclosed upon homes. This is America as post-apocalyptic, a dish that pairs well with the “end of the old guard” mentality that infects the characters within.
At a critical junction, a bystander remarks that the days of robbing banks and getting away to spend the money is over. In an age of heavy surveillance and militarized police forces, he’s not wrong. But so too is the age of the Texas Ranger encroaching its sunset.
Across the alignment aisle from the dastardly bros sit two of these very Texas Rangers, one on the brink of compulsory retirement (Jeff Bridges), the other ready to assume that soon-to-be vacant hole (Gil Birmingham). The pair’s repartee is closer to bullying than banter, with Bridges’ Marcus chewing into Alberto’s half-Cherokee, half-Mexican heritage with little pity and staged racial misanthropy. Marcus swears Alberto will miss his off-colored jests once he’s gone and the character’s fraternal bonds are developed to the point where, despite the abuse, we believe it.
In 2016, Bridges is no stranger to the cowboy archetype. He’s assimilated to that froggy down-home drawl time and again but, despite the vocal familiarity, his character work here is simply superb. A late-stage moment shared between him and Birmingham is pure fire; the feather capping a sublime offering. Pine too fires on all cylinders, crafting a character whose silent fury allows a thoughtful counterweight to Foster’s feral spasms and when he finally stands toe-to-toe with Bridges, everything clicks and makes for a conclusion that couldn’t have been closer to exactly what I wanted.
As Pine thrives playing against type, his meditative perp the polar opposite of his roguish hero roots, Foster nonchalantly chews through yet another outstanding showing of his thespian might, bad-to-the-bone as Tanner may ultimately be. Foster is perhaps the greatest unsung American actor alive and his casual mastery of character, whichever their orientation, is (almost) always a cinephile’s delight to behold. Among its many accomplishments, Hell or High Water serves to correct his high standing, following that not-so-inspired role in Duncan Jones’ perpetually faltering Warcraft.
Mackenzie, the fast-rising Brit who gave us the blistering prison drama Starred Up, directs with great finesse, championing ideas and characters over dense plotting and greedy showcases of violence. As a western crime drama, he’s tasked with reworking the wheel; to present a product that’s cognizant of its deeply American roots while injecting modern justifications for its existence. He does so smartly, wrangling growing domestic issues like gun violence and racism into the narrative corral organically. His coy utilization of violence proves explosive and unexpected and Mackenzie treats loss with a kind of earnest respect that’s too often glazed over. His handle on pace and tone is near masterful, his command over character exchanges even moreso. The great irony: that a Brit has made the best American western of the year.
CONCLUSION: A cops and robbers movie with real bite, David Mackenzie’s ‘Hell or High Water’ offers genre thrills amidst a thoughtful examination of modern American idealism. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster each offer excellent performances as the “last of their kind” in a film plump with unforgettable character work and outstanding sequences.