In the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and the foreclosure crisis that followed, it’s safe to say that financial institutions have been more unpopular than at any other time since the Great Depression. The people feel swindled and the real human toll of the financial system’s betrayal lingers in a resentment towards the banks. That dissatisfaction is behind much of Hell or High Water, a dusty crime thriller set in the desolate streets of west Texas. Hell or High Water is an updated version of the cops and robbers tales of the Old West.
Across the street from a local bank, there’s a piece of graffiti that reads, “3 tours in Iraq and no bailout for people like us.” The camera than circles around as a bank employee enters the bank only to be held at gunpoint by two masked assailants. After a minor hiccup, the two thieve methodically take the loot and peel away in their getaway car. The robbers are Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), brothers that couldn’t be more dissimilar. Tanner is an ex-con recently released from prison and Toby is a down-on-his-luck father, their mother just recently having passed. They race down the highway to another bank of the same chain and proceed to rob it as well.
Grizzled old Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is called in on the case with his partner and friend Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is weeks away from retirement and the unknown future ahead of him leaves him with some trepidation about retiring. The two partners share verbal barbs with one another in a playful manner, and have the kind of rapport that is built over years of working in a stressful job together. The two are tasked with deciphering the pattern of crimes committed by the mysterious men, but their methodical nature leaves few clues for them to go off of. If you’re familiar with these kinds of stories, you know that it doesn’t go smoothly for those on either side of the law.
Directed by David Mackenzie from a script by Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water isn’t a break-neck paced thriller. Instead this film takes its time in establishing its players and their motives, and much of the film lacks in visceral violence while remaining tense in its game of cat and mouse. The film is filled with gorgeous vistas of the Texas plains, aiding the film’s feel of a rugged, dust-covered world of good and bad. In many regards, Hell or High Water seemingly takes place in a much more relaxed world of something like No Country for Old Men.
It’s at the conclusion of Hell or High Water that the bullets begin to fly, and the resulting shootouts are elegantly composed and surprising in their outcome. The initial shootout occurs when armed Texans fight back against the robbing brothers and each shot is felt in the audience as the sounds of bullets tearing into the metal exteriors of cars rings through the soundtrack. This leads to an intriguing chase, where the vigilante Texans remain on the tail of the felonious family in lieu of police assistance. Everything we’ve seen up until this point has been building to this confrontation, and the film doesn’t disappoint there. Where it does disappoint, though, is in a prolonged conclusion, an attempt to neatly wrap things up despite the fact there’s no need for the type of conclusion the film is aiming for.
As he’s done in films like True Grit and R.I.P.D., Jeff Bridges plays his Texas lawman with the gruff, garbled voice that has become a recent trademark. Bridges and Gil Birmingham have a real onscreen chemistry and their banter is responsible for much of the film’s humorous moments. As the outlaws, Ben Foster and Chris Pine have a solid rapport, but not quite on the same level as their lawmen counterparts. Foster’s character operates as a full-time loser, a criminal who’s always on the verge of his next stint behind bars. Chris Pine gives an assured performance as Toby, displaying none of the arrogant bluster he’s brought to Captain Kirk and opting for a much quieter sense of an emotionally wounded patriarch, one shunned by the family he wishes to provide for.
We’d be venturing into spoiler territory if I were to divulge the details of their grand scheme, but I can say that its intent is to play the system against itself. It boils down to a moral quandary that wonders if the ends ever justify the means – and I like that the film really tries to avoid giving a concrete answer to that question. It also raises questions about culpability and whether the limits of responsibilities are solely placed upon the one who pulls the trigger. These questions even extend further into asking if it’s wrong to rob a robber baron or institutions that profit from the pain and misery of the lower classes. Hell or High Water is interested in so much more than whether or not the last man standing is the righteous one.
Whether wearing a three-piece suit to rob people with obtusely worded contracts or wearing a holster and placing a gun to their head, that brutal survival instinct that drives so many is criminal either way. There’s no nobility in thievery despite what the thieves might say. And nothing is as unsatisfying as a criminal going unpunished for their crimes. Hell or High Water blurs the line between the three-piece suit and the holster in its dusty morality play set against the backdrop of cops and robbers. While certainly engaging and entertaining, Hell or High Water’s reflection of modern issues concerning financial institutions and the time tested tale of cops and robbers doesn’t give the audience the kind of moralistic conclusion that they crave from works of fiction like this. Regardless, a movie this thematically robust doesn’t need any bailouts.