Hell or High Water Offers an Iconic Vision of the Modern West

Director David Mackenzie’s extraordinary neo-Western is a showcase for Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, and Ben Foster.

CBS Films

Scene: a bank robbery. Two armed thieves in ski masks approach the lone teller and an elderly customer she’s serving. One asks the latter, “You got a gun, old man?”

“Damn right I got a gun,” the old man responds. So the thieves take the gun away, complete their robbery, and flee the premises, leaving the man’s pistol on the counter. He of course picks it right back up and is firing on the bandits before they even reach their car, continuing to rain down lead until after they’ve sped out of the parking lot and down the street.

This moment, which takes place early in David Mackenzie’s stunning neo-Western Hell or High Water, is genuinely hilarious. But more than that, it shrewdly captures a regional ethos of the film’s West Texas setting, a strain of gun-toting self-reliance that occasionally shades into eager vigilantism. This is, notably, not the last time in the film that an armed bystander will attempt to thwart a crime in progress.

The bank robbers in question are the Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), the former as conflicted about their vocation as the latter is enthusiastic. Toby, a model of Western taciturnity, needs money to save his family’s ranch from foreclosure by the Texas Midlands Bank, and he has come up with a plan to do so by robbing multiple small branches of that very same bank. Tanner, meanwhile, is the wild, older sibling, recently out of prison and happy for the excuse to indulge his antisocial appetites.

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.)

Bridges, for his part, is an utter delight. I was less taken than some with his turns in Crazy Heart and True Grit, which seemed to fit a little too snugly within his comfort zone. But the ironic intelligence with which he plays Marcus feels fresh, and his visible joy in virtually every line reading can’t help but be infectious.

Hell or High Water is a genre film that transcends genre, an iconic American tale that is nonetheless firmly grounded in both place and time. (Perhaps its deepest irony is that it was directed by a Scotsman.) By turns humorous, riveting, and elegiac, it is a movie that never loses sight of its profound humanity.

“God, I love West Texas,” Marcus muses early in the film. Odds are that you will too.