'Hell or High Water' is just about perfect with its satisfying construction

'High Water' stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who rob banks and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger chasing them. It's a lean, efficient modern Western.

Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian/CBS Films
'Hell or High Water' stars Chris Pine (l.) and Ben Foster (r.).

“Hell or High Water” is a lean, efficient modern Western that is so satisfyingly constructed I’m tempted to say it’s just about perfect. There’s a special pleasure in watching a movie that knows exactly what it’s after and then, in scene after scene, gets it.

Set in a desolate sprawl of West Texas, it centers on two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), whom we first see in the early-morning hours holding up a small bank. They continue to rob regional branches, all of the same bank, making off with only small denominational, non-
traceable bills. 

The reason for the robberies soon comes clear: Toby, who is divorced, wants to pay off the mortgage and taxes on his family ranch, which he discovers has oil under it, before the bank grabs it. He wants to put the property in a trust for his two sons so they can escape the cycle of poverty that has afflicted not only his own family for generations but the entire region in the economic downturn that has foreclosures popping up everywhere. 

Toby has essentially been law-abiding until now but Tanner, a hell-raiser, spent 10 years in jail and has only been out for a year. In a typical exchange, Toby asks his older brother, “How’d you manage to stay out of prison for a year?” and Tanner answers, “It’s been difficult.”

But Toby needs Tanner’s outlaw smarts to manage the robberies, which attract the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is soon reluctantly to retire, and his deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a native American-Mexican who absorbs Marcus’s constant ribbing about his ethnicity, often hitting back with his own barbs. With its companionable mix of competitiveness and grudging affection, it’s one of the most convincing buddy-buddy portrayals I’ve ever seen, and it has its walloping emotional payoff as the film comes to a close.

Director David Mackenzie is British, which perhaps explains why the Western landscape here seems freshly imagined. Despite its ostensible familiarity, there is nothing generic about the way this film looks. (Giles Nuttgens did the eloquent, wide-screen cinematography.) There’s nothing generic about the way this film sounds, either. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay sounds like people-speak, not screenwriter-speak. And yet it’s stylized enough to catch the ear. The lines are memorable without being showoffy.

Although the film’s scope is small, it does have its sociopolitical ax to grind. (Occasionally the ax is wielded too heavily.) Spray-painted on the wall outside the first bank that is robbed we see the words
“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” It’s made clear throughout the movie that in this New West, the banks are the villains. Cowboys and Indians are equally exploited. Marcus can’t even get much cooperation from the locals when it comes to identifying the robbers. “Bank been robbing me for 30 years,” one grizzled potential witness tells him.

What saves all this from sentimentality is that the boys, or at least Tanner, are not exactly Robin Hoods. Tanner robs because he loves the adrenaline high he gets from breaking the law. He has a built-in radar for courting danger. By contrast, Toby is driven solely by a desire to pull his sons out of a life of poverty. He’s good-natured toward everybody except bankers. In one of the film’s best scenes, a local diner waitress (Katy Mixon), who is behind in her mortgage and has two kids to raise, gently flirts with him. He leaves her a $200 tip. (When Marcus asks for it back, as criminal evidence, she balks loudly.)

All of the performers in this film, right down to the bit players, are quite good, but Bridges demonstrates yet again that he is one of the finest actors in America – although I wish he’d cut out that drawly-
mumbly thing he’s been doing lately (most recently in his voice-over for the old man in “The Little Prince”). His role as Marcus is, strictly speaking, a supporting part, and yet, by force of talent, Bridges takes over the film every time he’s on screen. Marcus may be a lawman, but it’s clear he’s a relic in this world where oil derricks and abandoned farm equipment pock the landscape. He doesn’t want to give up his job because, we feel, he wants to hold on to a West that no longer exists. Grade: A- (Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout, and brief sexuality.)

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