David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is a lean, character driven crime thriller seasoned with bits of humor to temporarily ease the tension and the occasional moment of abrupt, brutal violence to put us back on edge. The film derives additional freshness and urgency through its setting and atmosphere.
“Hell or High Water” is set in small towns scattered across Texas--small towns that are slowly fading away do to the recession. Boarded up buildings, deserted properties, signs that read: “closing” and “property of the bank” dominate the film’s mise en scene. And through the unsubtle comments of the residents in these dying towns, one can feel a lot of anger and resentment towards the banks.
It’s in this environment of economic depression and pent up anger that the film’s narrative emerges. Two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster, menacing and delightfully unhinged) and Toby (Chris Pine, a little more mild mannered and cunning, but intimidating when he needs to be) have taken up bank robbing to pay off their outstanding debts to the bank. In the vein of Bonnie and Clyde or John Dillinger they drive from small town bank to small town bank, hitting the cash drawers. The picture is essentially an extended chase between the brothers and a pair of US Marshalls/ longtime friends, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
But if you’re expecting a fast paced, adrenaline fueled action film about cops and robbers then look elsewhere. Instead the mood is often casual and easygoing, as if a bank-robbing spree is no big deal. The brothers have come to terms with being outlaws; the film skips the “planning” stage and the moral and ethical questioning. Meanwhile, the townsfolk feel more anxiety and animosity towards the banks than the bank robbers (the implication that the banks are the bigger crooks can be felt loud and clear) and our Marshals are surprisingly cool and unhurried. Instead of being passionate lawmen determined to catch the outlaw, they seem to be doing it more out of obligation.
In other words, the dramatic stakes feel low most of the time, which is peculiar for a crime thriller about bank robbing but also appropriate when considering the situation. The townsfolk don’t care because it’s not their money being taken (that’s being taken by the banks; again the message is loud and clear, maybe too loud at times) and the bank doesn’t really care either because the brothers are stealing from the cash drawer only. Of course, two men can’t just go around robbing banks, hence the Marshal’s patient pursuit (the FBI isn’t even interested). Through the arduous and somewhat outdated method of in person bank robbery, the brothers find a way to get back at the system without greatly affecting it or the livelihood of those around them.
The relaxed nature of “Hell or High Water” and its straightforward story allow Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) to focus more on character rather than plot. The picture is impeccably paced—leisurely without being to sluggish. Sheridan’s tight, focused screenplay has a schedule to keep (the brothers have to keep moving after all) but it allows the interactions between the characters to play out in an unhurried fashion. The film switches back and forth between The Marshals and the brothers as they converse with each other--planning their next move or just chitchatting about whatever crosses their mind. These calm, quiet dialogue driven scenes make up a lot of the movie.
“Hell or High Water” thankfully doesn’t have extensive plot exposition and there aren’t any flashbacks. What we learn about all four primary characters we learn through present conversation and action, as well as details at the various pit stops they make (at one point, the brothers briefly visit Toby’s ex wife and two kids). Though Mackenzie and Sheridan also trust in their audience by not over explaining. When we first meet each pair there’s already an established foundation between them--a sense of trust and familiarity, a repartee. These are characters that have known each other for quite some time and had a life outside of the film. Instead of having to formally set up a narrative, Mackenzie and Sheridan drop us into the middle of one that’s already in progress.
Pine and Foster convincingly play charming, down to earth brothers and their reasons for turning to crime does come from a genuinely good place. However it takes a certain amount of courage to essentially be a full time outlaw and both Toby and Tanner have no problem carrying out nastier, more unforgivable deeds later on in the film without looking back. In fact they can be straight up cold-blooded at times, giving them moral complexity.
Bridges slips comfortably into his role, playing a cleaned up, more refined (and significantly less drunken) version of Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit.” He has such a comforting, likable onscreen presence here as an experienced and highly intelligent Marshall who’s just getting sick of the job (he’s retiring soon). This is the best Bridges has been since, well, “True Grit.” Meanwhile, Birmingham holds his own with Bridges--giving a playful performance with an undercurrent of wisdom and world-weariness.
The picture really picks up steam near the end; things get out of control for the brothers and blood is shed. Though the movie never goes off the rails and it closes on a tense, nonviolent verbal confrontation (rather than say, a gun fight) that both brings the narrative to a satisfying close and leaves things partially open.
“Hell or High Water” may not reinvent the wheel but it’s an exceptionally made character driven crime film that’s as relevant and urgent as it is entertaining.