West Texas as depicted in David Mackenzie's crime drama Hell or High Water is no country for unarmed men. It's a parched place of desperate characters and Texas Rangers chasing them, with bystanders willing to lend a truck or gun to the pursuit.
Welcome to the wild new West, where modern economics collide with frontier swagger, resulting in a spree of bank robberies and a cagey manhunt. The culprits are the Howard brothers: Toby (Chris Pine) with his looks should've been something more; Tanner (Ben Foster) is nothing more than a temperamental ex-con.
Their patient pursuers are Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, this movie's ace in the hole). Longtime partners, Marcus and Alberto have instincts for crime and each other, a professional friendship marked by running insults and sly deductions. They're old bloodhounds picking up the scent. No need to hurry.
Hell or High Water is a movie with Lone Star swagger matching its dusty characters, scripted by Taylor Sheridan with the arcing tension he took south of the border in last year's thrilling Sicario. Crimes and stakes are lower this time but not for the characters Sheridan so vividly draws, brought to life by a quartet of actors at the top of their game.
The Tanner brothers' motive for robbing banks is relatable in post-bubble America, losing the family ranch unless back payments are made. There's a Robin Hood tinge to the spree, knocking over only those banks holding the mortgage. That's Toby's idea, a measure of fairness that'll cost them, when Marcus senses the pattern.
Bridges brings more than a touch of True Grit to Marcus, snarling his lines from beneath a bushy mustache, measuring up anyone in sight. Marcus isn't impulsive, although Bridges conveys an urgency behind the Ranger's laconic nature. He'd probably agree that Birmingham is half of the performance, so perfectly do their styles blend.
One pleasure of Hell or High Water is how deftly Mackenzie depicts the Tanners' modus operandi, burying getaway cars, laundering money in casinos. Marcus and Alberto get a different sort of detailed attention, spending much of their time in a diner across the street from a possibly targeted bank. Not the most kinetic cinema but thrillingly staged and performed.
As Toby, Pine aces one of those tarnished golden boy roles that are rites of passage for handsome actors. He's in perfect disharmony with Foster's Tanner, a live wire throwing sparks in every direction. Their chemistry is morally polar to Marcus and Alberto's, yet both are brotherly, leading to a vengeful third act and a deliciously macho coda, one of the year's most unshakable finales.
Hell or High Water is a terrific piece of entertainment, the movie that serious moviegeors waited all summer to see. Not because it contains overhyped superheroes or animated critters, but because it has none of those. It isn't a highbrow indie but a gritty work of art. Mackenzie's movie thrills for all the right reasons and will be fondly remembered at year's end.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.