The contemporary West Texas setting of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water has a flavor of weary, ingrown neglect. Dusty small-town main streets dotted with boarded-up storefronts. E-Z loan billboards up and down the highway. Cash-and-drive used car lots. Six-packs to go. The T-Bone Café, where the only thing they serve is a T-bone steak, with or without green beans. The Indian casino outside of town. And, slowly disappearing from the scene, the local bank — the one institution everybody can agree on because everyone hates it.
The Howard brothers, doomed romantics Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), have a special reason to dislike the bank — it foreclosed on their ailing mother’s ranch right before she died. Tanner, a mean-spirited cuss, was in prison then, but when he gets out he convinces his younger brother Toby, a would-be family man with an ex-wife and two young sons, to help him take revenge on all the banks in their area by swooping in and scooping up loose cash from their teller drawers. The idea being that the amounts are too small to warrant heavy federal law enforcement.
Toby has plans to put the money away in a trust fund for his children; Tanner just enjoys busting up the place. These smash-and-grab stickups by two out-of-work, cowboy-looking white men in sock masks naturally draw the attention of veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and fellow Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who set out to trap the outlaws with minimal fuss, the way they’d corner a pair of rampaging wolves.
Director Mackenzie, a British move-over, handles the violent mechanics of the chase in quick, clean strokes, but it’s the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan that makes Hell or High Water the nicest surprise of the season, a welcome change of pace from a routine car-crash shoot-em-up. Actor-turned-writer Sheridan penned the Mexican border drug war actioner Sicario, a bloody free-for-all between cops and cartels. By contrast, the protagonists of Hell or High Water are as sexy as chicken-fried steak. For the classically minded, the Howard brothers’ complaint resembles those of John Steinbeck’s uprooted Okies. In more recent terms, Tanner and Toby’s desperate situation echoes the rebellious subjects of Michael Moore’s doc Capitalism: A Love Story — or worse, the misguided agony of the stereotypical down-market Trump voter, taken for granted and left holding the bag. For all of them, the American Dream was a cruel illusion, a sucker’s bet on the kindness of banks. No wonder they’re pissed off.
By contrast, Bridges and Birmingham display a pleasantly salty, rough-edged squad-car camaraderie as the Rangers, alternately making fun of Alberto’s Native-American ancestry — the film takes place in the homeland of the Comanches — and Marcus’ advanced age. Bridges even surpasses his own Rooster Cogburn in the plug-of-chaw-mumble department.
If there’s one thing we learn trailing these characters through Texas, it’s that every man and half the women are packing. If you try to hold up a bank, folks will pull out their shooting irons and beg to differ.
The Hell or High Water acting diagram is eccentric. Two-day-beard chick magnet: Pine’s Toby Howard. Crazed loser with a sentimental streak: Foster’s Tanner. Good old boy à la Tommy Lee Jones, et al: Bridges’ Marcus. Taciturn scene-stealer extraordinaire: Birmingham’s “injun sidekick” Alberto. Best old coot outside a Richard Linklater movie: Margaret Bowman, as the ornery waitress at the T-Bone Café.
But the character acting blue ribbon goes to Katy Mixon in the role of Jenny Ann, the restaurant server who stands up and talks back to the Rangers who want to impound the $200 tip that Toby left her, for evidence. She needs that money for her kids.
Pack those players together with Sheridan’s jim-dandy of a socially conscious screenplay, stir in a well-thought-out playlist of jukebox tunes (by Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings) plus original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, add the obligatory hail of lead, and presto — instant Texas with all the trimmings. Highly recommended.