In laid-back pursuit of the duo are Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a drawling Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement, and his part-American-Indian deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The pursuit leads them from one small, economically battered town to another: Olney, Archer City, Coleman, Post.
Indeed, West Texas itself is a principal character in the film—dusty, sun-bleached, fading yet obstinate. More than once the idea is presented that this land belonged to the Comanche (the original title of the film was Comancheria) until the white people took it away from them; then it belonged to the white people until the banks took it away from them. This is hardly the first time that a film about bank robbers has portrayed them as modern-day Robin Hoods—perhaps the most recent was Michael Mann’s sleek but shallow Public Enemies—but Hell or High Water resists the urge to romanticize. Toby and Tanner aren’t glamorous figures, just men pushed to the edge. And while the movie’s economic critique is clear—apart from the Rangers, there’s hardly a male figure in the film who seems gainfully employed—it steers clear of didacticism, content to remain one background thread among many.
Rich cinematic echoes abound, including several apparent callbacks to the Coen brothers’ southwestern oeuvre. Bridges’s Marcus is the slightly less exhausted—and more politically incorrect—twin of Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. (At one point, his partner tells him, “I don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart.”) And the Rangers’ response to a chance encounter with ranchers trying to herd their cattle away from a brush fire—“Those boys are on their own”—is a near-quote of the opening lines of Blood Simple.
Hell or High Water also conjures memories of two underrated West Texas neo-noirs from 1993. The narrative alternation between outlaw and pursuing Ranger mirrors that of Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (though in contrast to that unbalanced film, here both halves are equally well-told). And the idea of sins passed down through time, of sons making amends for fathers—at one point Toby describes poverty as “like a disease that passes from generation to generation”—recalls Steve Kloves’s Flesh and Bone, which helped introduce the cinematic world to a 20-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow. Digging back deeper still, Mackenzie’s film quietly updates the themes and sensibility of Bonnie and Clyde.
Such reminders aside, Hell or High Water is very much its own film. The excellent script, by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), was a 2012 Black List winner for unproduced screenplays. And Mackenzie’s direction is refined without being flashy, alternating between moods—comic, tragic, ruminative, violent—with seamless self-assurance.
So far in his career, Pine has had the dubious good fortune of establishing himself as a star of blockbusters (the Star Trek franchise, the upcoming Wonder Woman) before truly establishing himself as an actor. But in the role of Toby he makes up for lost time, with a low-key, charismatic turn reminiscent (again) of Josh Brolin in No Country. His bluer-than-blue eyes do not twinkle here, instead receding toward unknowability. As his brother, Tanner, Foster likewise keeps his performance dialed down, avoiding the overt scenery-chewing the character could easily have fallen into. (It’s almost enough to forgive the actor for Warcraft. Almost.)