9 out of 10
Chris Pine as Toby Howard
Directed by David Mackenzie
Hell or High Water Review:
Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter for Hell or High Water, understands the intricacies of the conversations of men, men who talk a lot but never say what they mean; men whose jovial choice of words hides a deeper melancholy and pain. As screenwriter for “Sons of Anarchy” and Sicario, Sheridan writes towards the meanings between the words. Add to that the spirit and stark realities of living in Texas, and Hell or High Water becomes more than just a modern Western, set in the dusky, dirty back roads of the Texas countryside; more than a crime epic; more than a study of desperate outlaws and the lawmen who are duty-bound to track them down. There is a beautiful grace to David Mackenzie’s direction, a dignity to the phenomenal score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a deeper truth in the performances that makes Sheridan’s script sing.
Hell or High Water can turn on a dime – funny and sweet one minute, and then suddenly brutally cold and violent the next. Mackenzie orchestrates these shifts in tone like a master conductor, filling some scenes with tension and others with humor. We are both repelled and attracted to brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), driving along the countryside robbing a particular bank branch, but never taking the hundreds, instead robbing the trays of a few thousand dollars and then heading on. They have a goal in mind, and won’t be deterred from it – not by greed, or by their own personal wants and needs. That goal is best discovered in the film, but there is a deep history and darkness that haunts these two brothers. While Toby is the taciturn one, with an eye on the big picture, Tanner, recently released from prison, is more reckless and dangerous. “You know we’re gonna get caught, right?” he asks his brother, with inevitability and hidden despair. Toby has a hope that he can see this task through, but also must keep his brother in check the best way he can.
Their crime spree gets the attention of two Texas Rangers – Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is very close to retirement but is eager to make his last days useful and meaningful, and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Mexican, half-Native American Ranger, has great respect for Marcus, even with all the jovial racist comments that Marcus throws his way. It’s Marcus who figures out that there’s a larger motive to the Howard brothers’ actions, and while Alberto isn’t sure that Marcus is right, he wants to make Marcus’s last days as a Texas Ranger as meaningful as he can.
Pine, Foster, Bridges, and Birmingham are all terrific. Pine, especially, puts Toby’s darkness and despair in his eyes, and this may be the best performance he’s ever done. Ben Foster has played roles like Tanner before – the battle-scarred, crazy-eyed outlaw who would shoot you sure as look at you, but unlike those other performances, Foster fills Tanner with a regret and pensiveness that betrays his wilder nature. He has a wonderful rapport with Pine, and brings that feeling of a shared past to the forefront. These are wounded men – wounded by family, by loss, by circumstance – but they also have a deep abiding love for each other that fuels their journey.
Jeff Bridges plays Marcus as a talkative old man, full of anecdotes and a casual racism that gets under Alberto’s skin even when Marcus is just trying to get a rise out of him. But he’s also full of emotion, and a passion for the job and to do what’s right. When the moment comes for Marcus to do his duty, he does it with efficiency and skill. Bridges is his usually wonderful self – like his many roles before him, Bridges has a way of getting not just into the skin of his characters, but also giving them weight and a sense of place. Marcus is as Texan as they come, ready and willing to do the job, but also curious to see where his life will take him next once he’s no longer a Texas Ranger. Bridges gives Marcus a sense of curiosity that makes Marcus lovable even when he’s not particularly politically correct. Gil Birmingham does a fine job of not only keeping up with Bridges’ performance but giving back just as good. Birmingham and Bridges have a chemistry together that makes us as an audience enjoy watching them spend time together. Like the works of Larry McMurtry or Robert Parker, Taylor Sheridan’s script has a real gift in examining the relationships of these men on a mission, and he makes these friendships and relationships compelling.
Director David Mackenzie not only makes the humor work, he also has a keen sense of time and place. This is a Texas movie through and through, and while there are a lot of signifiers in that regard (the Shiner Bock flows like water, and like any good Texan, Tanner knows the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb) Mackenzie also makes it right where it counts – in the words and the looks between brothers and partners; the still, flat horizons; the heat that comes off the road, and the people who populate the small towns and roads of West Texas. “You got a gun, oldtimer?” asks Tanner to a bank customer. “You’re damn right I do,” the old man says, as if the man would leave his house without any clothes on. In the spaces between moments, Mackenzie fills Hell or High Water with verisimilitude and refinement. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do an amazing job giving Hell or High Water emotional resonance, and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens gives West Texas (actually, filmed in New Mexico) an elegant weight, making the stark desert heat almost come off the screen. This is a rich, fulfilling movie, filled with characters who we not only enjoy spending time with, but root for even when they’re taking the wrong path, hoping that they will find the true road to travel by. Full of emotion, humor, grit, and power, Hell or High Water is, as we say in Texas, sweeter than baby’s breath.