In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising Donald Trump won the United States Presidential election. He tapped into something primal among American voters, mainly white, blue-collar people that felt ignored by Barack Obama’s presidency. To be fair, they were ignored by George Bush’s presidency also but this time around the chickens clearly came home to roost. The crime film Hell or High Water (2016) taps into this anger in a way that hasn’t been done since Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012) but whereas that film rubbed its political statement in the audience’s face, this one is a little subtler, a little more nuanced.
“It seems foolish. The days of robbing banks and trying to live to spend the money. They’re long gone. Long gone, for sure.”
A random man laments this early on in Hell or High Water and it encapsulates the nature of it quite well. Bank heists have been depicted on film every which way you can imagine but director David Mackenzie manages to give it a novel spin by having two aspiring crooks show up to the bank early with only one teller present and she doesn’t have the code for the safe. The two men wait for the manager who shows up and is greeted with the butt end of a handgun to the head. Slam cut to the bank robbers speeding away from the scene of the crime. They hit another bank and are shot at by one of the customers whose packing heat – welcome to West Texas.
The two men are Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster). The latter is the stereotypical wild man who is in it for the thrills (and the money) while the former is trying to get enough money out of this crime spree to pay off the debt on the family ranch before it is foreclosed in a few days. Oil has recently been discovered on the land and he wants to sell the rights and provide for his estranged sons.
Naturally, their little crime spree gets the attention of the law and two Texas Rangers – Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – investigate. The former is close to retirement and this will probably be his last case. We’ve seen this set up before but the execution is where it counts and the film wastes no time in diving deep and exploring the motivations of the brothers. Tanner maybe a risk taker but, in a smartly acted scene, we see the deep regret he feels over not being there for his mother during her last days. His thrill-seeking behavior is a source of tension between him and Toby who has a plan that he tries to follow.
Chris Pine delivers his strongest performance to date, showing a depth that makes me wish he’d do more of these kinds of films and less of the Star Trek ones. He plays a conflicted character who sees robbing banks as the quickest way to get the money he needs and reluctantly makes a pact with the devil in the form of his brother. Toby has resigned himself to his lot in life, sacrificing himself for his family, aware that his trajectory is probably a fatal one, especially when it involves his loose cannon brother. Pine delivers a soulful performance that is heartfelt. There’s a simple shot of Toby watching the news on television reporting the aftermath of their last bank job and the resignation and utter defeated nature that washes overs his face while also conveyed in his posture is quietly devastating.
Ben Foster is a fascinating character actor to watch, making oddly intriguing choices in forgettable movies like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and The Mechanic (2011) and disappearing into rich characters in more challenging fare like Rampart (2011) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). The actor works hard to flesh out the wild-card brother stereotype through little bits of business, like how Tanner breaks the tension between him and Toby in a scene by singing along to a song on the radio as they are driving in a car.
Jeff Bridges is excellent as a veteran lawman and it is the little choices he makes, like how Marcus rests his hat on his foot while sitting down, that flesh out his character. We also get insight into his character through his interactions with others, like how he puts a shaken young bank teller at ease while questioning her or how he quickly figures out what the robbers are doing. Marcus has been around long enough and seen enough to be an exceptional judge of character.
Bridges and Gil Birmingham are believable as long-time partners in the way they interact, like the laid-back way they good-naturedly insult each other or get on each other’s nerves like an old married couple with Albert barely tolerating Marcus who is holding onto this case for as long as he can because he knows how much he’s going to miss the work once he’s retired. He comes across as a crotchety old man, at times, but his partner feels sorry for him. We also see how they work a crime scene, each knowing what their job is and going about doing it.
They are matched by Foster and Pine who are also convincing as brothers, which translates into a good rapport between them. It shows in every scene they have together, like how easily Toby and Tanner irritate each other and how they also stick up for the other.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a real ear for realistic dialogue – the give and take between two people, like the brothers or the lawmen, that has a ring of authenticity as if we are eavesdropping on the lives of actual people. Much like he did with Sicario (2015), there’s a feeling of dread that gradually permeates the film as we know what’s coming – the inevitable conflict between the bankrobbing brothers and the Texas Rangers pursuing them – both of whom we’ve become invested in. Mackenzie does an excellent job of gradually ratcheting up the tension as he builds towards the bank job that goes bad, which always happens in these kinds of films, but not quite in the way you expect it to go down. The climactic showdown plays out much as you’d expect but then something interesting happens afterwards. Marcus retires but he still has to know why Toby and Tanner did it. The scene between him and Pine is cordial but the implied threats exchanged are not.
Hell or High Water depicts the heart of Trump’s America: run-down towns with boarded-up storefronts and graffiti on a wall that reads, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” The brothers drive by a “Closing Down” sign and another one that says, “Debt Relief.” There’s the casual racism, like when they rob a bank and a customer is incredulous that they aren’t Mexican. Initially, this seems like Mackenzie is laying the political text on rather thick but in this post-U.S. election world it feels very timely. The kinds of towns shown in the film and the people that populate them are the ones that voted for Trump. We see towns populated by angry people that feel marginalized and forgotten, living in economically dead places that dot the landscape all over the country. Hell or High Water is populated by people beaten down by life, from the ornery old waitress that waits on Marcus and Alberto, to Toby’s tired and pissed off ex-wife. They’re all just trying to get by, taking it day by day.