Taut, terse, and throbbing with suspense and unexpected violence, Hell or High Water is a bristling heist crime thriller with an acute sense of place; a buddy drama about family ties and partner woes; and an apt investigation into the limits of the law in the realm of the desperate. Beautifully performed, with a brisk running time of 102 minutes, it’s an arthouse crowdpleaser that doubles as an enjoyable – if not perfectly pitched – takedown of the economic troubles of our times.
Toby and Tanner Howard are in dire straits: they are days away from losing their family’s farm property to foreclosure. Oil has been discovered on the land, the rights for which Toby (Chris Pine), a well-intentioned but divorced father, plans to sell and give to his two sons, but as the deadline encroaches, Toby solicits his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to assist in a series of bank robberies to come up with the money. Two Texas Rangers, including a nearly-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), are sent to catch the gun-wielding, ski mask-wearing duo.
Originally titled Comancheria, Hell or High Water premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival to significant critical acclaim, and for good reason: it’s a crackerjack cast on crackerjack form. Pine, despite a prolific filmography since 2009, has impressed most in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot and Tony Scott’s runaway train thriller Unstoppable, opposite Denzel Washington. For the first time, he proves to be an actor of serious potential, and not just as a box office draw.
Ben Foster, by contrast, has traversed this ground before, in the Western reboot 3:10 to Yuma and even more convincingly in The Messenger, opposite Woody Harrelson. As the dangerously spontaneous wild card Tanner, he is deliriously entertaining, while hints of his tragic past simmer below the surface. And Bridges, the man behind such memorable creations as The Dude and Rooster Cogburn in the Coens’ True Grit reboot, is expectedly remarkable, developing a believable character with a dazzling emotional range. (Look for him to be in the Oscar conversation for Best Supporting Actor.)
Interestingly, the attention on the behind-the-camera talent has seemed to focus on Taylor Sheridan, who was involved in Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy before writing last year’s drug thriller Sicario. Indeed, this 2012 Black List-winning screenplay is far better than his first attempt, and the banter between Toby and Tanner and between Marcus and his partner Gil is inappropriate and hilarious. But David Mackenzie, who directed a string of misfires before breaking out in 2013 with the bleak prison drama Starred Up!, also deserves credit for crafting such a well-paced, well-executed piece of filmmaking.
Despite many similarities – including an authentic portrait of West Texas (though shot in New Mexico), an intensity mixed with black humour, and overlapping thematic preoccupations – Hell or High Water is not No Country for Old Men, nor on the same level of quality. Based on the finished product, Mackenzie and Sheridan were interested in something else: a smoother, more straightforward action vehicle with well-defined characters and a refreshing honesty (“[The bank’s] been robbing me for thirty years”) and sense of responsibility (“No, you believe it. I did all of it”).
2016 has been a hard year for the movies. Any director of a smart independent feature like Hell or High Water, with so many strengths and so few flaws, should be applauded for their efforts, and should be rewarded with audiences actually screening the results of those efforts. See it, come hell or high water.