Hell or High Water is appropriately elegiac for its subject matter.
The changing face of the American West is something Cormac McCarthy has masterfully explored in his novels, one of which was made into an Oscar-winning film. And largely because of this, the notion of the cowboy has been irrevocably changed. The low-talking outdoorsman who has little time for feelings is now finding the never-ending country he called home is now closing in around him. Hell or High Water is the latest installment in what seems like a never-ending line of films saying the same exact thing.
Directed by British filmmaker David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is a heist film set in a part of Texas where time appears to have stood still. A pair of brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), knock off banks in sleepy little towns for a purpose that comes into focus as the film progresses. Toby, the good-looking, kindly brother, is reeling from a divorce and missing his kids. Tanner, a career criminal, is a loose cannon. The pair rob banks right when they open in the mornings, taking only small bills and nothing else. In between jobs, they carefully plan their next heist while bonding over stories of their recently deceased mother.
Their crimes attract the attention of grizzled Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges), who is just weeks from his retirement. Lonely and lost in the bottle, Marcus spends his final days ridiculing his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). There isn’t much out there for Marcus, who Bridges plays as a sadder version of his Rooster Cogburn, besides his job so one last coup is in order before he heads out to pasture. Much like Tommy Lee Jones’ character in No Country for Old Men, Marcus is a man out of time. He belongs to a Texas of the past, a point that Sheridan and Mackenzie hammer home over and over, without subtlety, throughout the film.
Take, for example, a scene where the brothers pull up to a gas station. A mule waits outside and a glum looking cowboy comes out of the store and gets on it. As soon as that happens, a green muscle car pulls up, its owner insulting Toby. There are many on-the-nose moments like this in the film that could have been handled with more grace, or even excised completely. Yes, it is humorous to hear Marcus and Alberto get upbraided by a crotchety old waitress in a saloon that only serves steak, but these moments don’t further the story and are just too obvious in their symbolism.
Featuring music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Hell or High Water is appropriately elegiac for its subject matter, but Sheridan’s script still offers many wry and humorous moments. He also refuses to paint his characters in black and white, making it difficult to pick a side once we discover the purpose behind Toby and Tanner’s crimes. There is a villain in Hell or High Water, though an amorphous one ultimately consistent with what’s going on in the end. Despite moments that are desperately obvious, there is enough heft to the story and a trio of good performances to recommend Hell or High Water.