Sometimes you try to get to a movie to review it, but it keeps not working out, and you start to think that maybe you should just let this one go. I had just about reached that point with Hell or High Water when my schedule finally lined up and I made it to a showing of the movie, and man am I glad I stuck with this one, because Hell or High Water is GREAT. It’s expanding wide this weekend, which means it’s a lot more accessible—don’t miss it. This is one of the year’s best films.
Hell or High Water is a genre hybrid, straddling the line between Western and heist movie that spends more time pondering life in dying rural communities than it does in car chases or explosions, although there is a good car chase and a good explosion, too. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Water doesn’t indulge in speeches or proselytizing. Instead, the culture of the film is steeped in the deep, abiding resentment cattlemen have for banks.
Billboards for debt relief and payday loans dot the landscape, and bankers talk about reverse mortgages and all the other predatory practices that f*cked up our economy nearly a decade ago. But no one rails against it, it’s just treated as yet another obstacle to be dealt with, like drought, and everyone has a healthy disdain for their local bank. I was just in rural Texas a couple weeks ago and every second of Water rang true, not only to Texan culture but also what it’s like to make your living off the land, subject to its whims and vagaries.
Chris Pine stars as Toby, a rancher about to lose everything after a series of crises put him tens of thousands of dollars into debt. The bank is set to foreclose on his ranch, which would be bad enough, but oil has just been discovered on his land, which means he’s not only losing his house, he’s losing the kind of money that can lift a family out of poverty. Determined to keep the oil proceeds for his kids, Toby enlists his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), to help him rob banks to raise the cash to pay off the loan note.
Pine and Foster are fantastic together, and totally believable as brothers. And they both nail the West Texas accent, with Foster, particularly, sounding totally genuine. People unfamiliar with that heavy of a twang might actually struggle to understand him, just like you would in actual West Texas. I prefer Pine in comedy mode, but he is very good as Toby, looking every inch the worn down rancher just about ready to drop from exhaustion. Ostensibly they’re playing the bad guys, but Toby is so sympathetic that’s easy to forget.
On the other side of the law are two Texas Rangers, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham, Twilight). Bridges is at his grizzled best, and Birmingham is stellar as the minority cop stuck with the loudmouthed white guy as a partner. There are moments when he seems to legitimately loathe Marcus, who constantly denigrates his mixed Native and Mexican heritage, and one of the film’s best elements is how Marcus and Alberto view their relationship, and the emotional gulf between them. Their relationship is far more poignant than the brothers’, which makes the ending that much more loaded.
The film spans just a few days as Toby and Tanner go on their robbery spree and Marcus and Alberto try to catch up to them. Tension mounts steadily throughout, but there are moments of humor and humanity that leaven it. Everybody from the main characters to the “sassy” waitress to the sleazy bank manager feel wholly authentic. A table of old timers gawking at the Texas Rangers killed me, and the constant drone of katydids in the background is a nice touch. Also, the way that Texas being an open carry state is woven into the plot pays off beautifully.
Water has all the hallmarks of a good Western—good men in compromising situations, landscapes so open they become oppressive, and a great shootout—but it also has tense, nervy bank heists and getaways. And in between that is some of the best drama yet seen this year, delivered by four stellar performances. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) doesn’t miss a beat, letting scenes unfold slowly so that each moment layers on the tension and emotion, and the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is outstanding. There’s still several months of this year left, but Hell or High Water is a top-tenner for sure.
(More reviews coming later today if you’re planning to go to the movies.)
Attached - The cast of Hell or High Water at the Los Angeles premiere earlier this month.