HOLLYWOOD—”Hell or High Water” is ostensibly the story of a crime spree, but it’s really so much more. In truth, it’s one of the finest anti-westerns I’ve yet scene. Indeed, it’s a tremendously intelligent commentary on the economics, mentality, and culture of both the old and modern west.
The plot follows brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) as they embark on a spree of bank robberies in modern day Texas. They are pursued by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The crime wave and pursuit takes us to casinos, hotels, dying small towns, diners, and gas stations across the economically depressed West Texas and Oklahoma plains.
There’s so much to praise in this film. The casting was done with laser precision. Everyone was well suited to their role. Pine and Foster are at times somber, enraged, and even hilarious. Jeff Bridges is in his element as the larger than life lawman. Don’t take this to mean he’s all snarky quips and cowboy toughness. He’s excellent in portraying his character’s loneliness and inner struggles. Really he was perfect whatever the mood of the scene. Up against Bridges’ fantastic performance, I think a lot of people will overlook Birmingham, but they shouldn’t. Alberto is a much more down to earth figure than Marcus, but no less interesting. Birmingham’s monologues were emotional, eloquent, and just seemed to fit in perfectly with his character. Both sets of actors are great as on screen pairs. They have fantastic chemistry. I really cared for every character in the movie, and this is due not just to the superb script, but the outstanding performances as well.
Even the secondary characters shine. Gamblers, bank tellers, local vigilantes, and waitresses all add to the tremendous ensemble. Even though it’s a drama it has some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Terrific and at times dark, humor permeates the story. You’ll laugh more than a little, and it just adds to the tragedies when they do happen. You’ll laugh and laugh when Marcus and Alberto order the steaks.
The movie is not only funny, but infinity quotable. Lines like “You’d think there were 10 of me,” keep popping up in my head. We have to talk about the fact that Marcus often makes racist jokes about his partner. The old Ranger claims he does this so his partner will remember his teasing, look back, and laugh about it after his death. Marcus’ actions towards Alberto often come off more obnoxious than aggressive. Sure it was offensive and at times cringe worthy, but I felt it added a necessary, unlikable character trait to the often likable Marcus. We roll our eyes and exhale right along with Alberto, but we can still see the good qualities in Marcus. It’s not reveling or over luxuriating in the racism, it’s portraying a balanced, complex, flawed character. Every character in the film has something to like and dislike. It’s a testament to the quality of the film’s writing.
Speaking of writing, this is a fantastic script, having come off the so called “black list” of great, unproduced screenplays. Writer Taylor Sheridan has written one of the best all year, and it should net him an Academy Award nomination. He manages to do things that many writers try, but so few do well. For instance, he adds some subtle political satire to the narrative. He takes aim at gun culture, with both assault weapons and the “good guy with a gun” falling victim to his narrative talents. I can see if this isn’t to your political liking that it can be a turn off, but give it a chance. It isn’t overly preachy or snide. Plus, the tremendous gunfights and chase scenes should be able to keep you hooked even if the politics are a turn off.
This is a story that takes us right to the heart of west, both old and new. Everywhere in the film, we are shown scenes of economic destitution. Dying towns and rusting metal liter the beautifully majestic plains. Director David Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautifully show these contrasts.
You can really tell this is a post 2008 movie. Anger at banks and financial institutions is palpable. In fact, I’d venture this movie has as much in common with crime dramas set during the Great Depression like “Public Enemies” as it does with classic westerns. At no point are these institutions themselves shown any sympathy. We’re repeatedly shown how they take advantage of the hard working people living on the plains. It’s here that we find the center of our story.
In a superb monologue, Alberto gives us a short history of the Old West. He tells of how the land was taken from the Native Americans, and now the descendants of those conquerors are being themselves conquered by their financial institutions. A scene of cowboys driving a herd of cattle ahead of a wildfire is highly symbolic. Now the Howard brothers, who are facing the seizure of their late mother’s land by a bank, look to use violence and theft to protect their land. The final scene between Bridges and Pine makes clear the film’s message. The violence and greed that lead to the original seizure of the west continues to play out, and as long as that violence and the desire for betterment through conquest is ever present and greed rules the land, the cycle of violence will never stop. It’s brilliant and not just a little Shakespearean.
I appreciate the fact that we aren’t allowed to forget that everything we are seeing, all the places, people, and alike are standing in the shadow of the atrocities visited upon the Native Americans. Tanner’s interactions with a Comanche man in an Oklahoma casino are sad and ring of that terrible, too often undiscussed American truth about our collective past. What we have taken, what we have done, still hurts so many in the present. It’s an awful historical bell that is still ringing. The film shows us this with great skill, and I am deeply impressed.
I talked about that infinitely quotable dialogue earlier. There’s one line that I can’t forget. When Tanner says, “Lord of the plains. That’s me.” It’s one of the most effecting, well timed lines I’ve heard in a long time. When you read or see something and a line like this comes along you feel immediately that it’ll stay with you. This is for sure one of those lines.
I highly recommend this movie. It’s certainly one of the best of the summer, and maybe the year. It’s a tremendous action movie, crime drama, modern western, and commentary on America. Don’t miss it.
By Mathew Foresta