Hell or High Water
Posted on August 11, 2016 at 5:40 pm
“Hell or High Water” is a modern western that reminds us why spare, dry landscapes have so often been the settings for grand American epics. Like frontier stories of ranchers, farmers, cowboys, Indians, masculinity, and bank robbers, this film has a gripping story that touches on the most profound American struggles — from guns to real estate, race, and income inequality — specific in detail but universal in scope.
One of the film’s wisest choices is in keeping important information from us until just the right moment, so I will be especially scrupulous about spoilers and keep the description of the plot to a minimum. There are four main characters, two bank robbers and two Texas Rangers. The bank robbers are Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), and we can tell immediately that they seem less experienced than the staff at the small Texas Midland bank branch they are robbing, just before it opens on a dusty morning. Both bad news and good manners are so deeply ingrained in the bank manager that he courteously wishes them a good morning before turning over the small unmarked bills.
The Texas Rangers are about-to-retire Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is of both Native American and Mexican heritage, as Marcus constantly reminds him with a stream of amiably delivered insults. As Tanner and Toby continue to rob banks, always Texas Midland branches, Marcus begins to discover a pattern that begins to reveal a plan.
The characters are skillfully drawn and performed with a deep and understanding humanity, not just by the four lead actors but by everyone in the cast. Every performance in even the smallest role conveys an arid and dusty world, physically, financially, and emotionally. Standouts include Katy Mixon as a waitress, Richard Christie as a bank loan officer, and Dale Dickey as the woman who opens the bank in the morning.
The outstanding screenplay is written by Texan Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Guns of Anarchy”), who knows these people and these places. He has a gift for finding the poetry in dialog as dry and spare as the setting. And he has the confidence in himself, his characters, and his audience to let the story unfold without telling us too much at first, and to present complex issues without feeling that he has to provide simple answers. Sheridan also has a gift for the small, telling details, the bank manager who courteously wishes the bank robbers good morning, the Indian casino, the ex-wife, the way some men say more in the pauses than the words. His deep appreciation for people overlooked by just about everyone makes this cops and robbers story into something real and meaningful.
Parents should know that this film has extended crime and law enforcement-related violence, with characters injured and killed, themes of moral and legal crimes, drinking, smoking, sexual references, prostitute, and a brief explicit sexual situation.
Family discussion: Why does the movie keep some of the details of the plan secret for so long? Why does Marcus insult Alberto? Why does Tanner say he is a Comanche?
If you like this, try: “99 Homes” and “The Newton Boys”