Taylor Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” didn’t have the easiest track to the big screen. It was finally purchased for production in 2012 after being highlighted as the Black List’s top script, but it would be another four years before it would finally hit theaters. But it’s hard to believe there has been a timelier moment for the movie to land than right now.
It has been accurately defined as a neo-western. It’s also a heist movie. It could be considered a comedy. Some may even call it an incisive bit of social commentary. Actually all of the above are fitting descriptions of this sensitive but slightly off-beat tale of two brothers burdened by their economic struggles. Director David Mackenzie takes this idea and visualizes it through the lens of tough small town living, something that the film rightly shows is slowly dying off.
Those not close to or familiar with the rural challenges the movie depicts may not appreciate how accurately the film captures it. In the real America small working class towns are drying up. Many have economies dependent on one or two plants or factories and when those industries leave the communities suffer. Sheridan and Mackenzie capture this with such vivid and authentic detail through a powerful mix of camera, script, and setting.
It’s this world that brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) live in. Toby is recently divorced and struggling to keep his family’s ranch left to him by his deceased mother. A reverse mortgage has left him smothering in debt and trying to avoid a looming foreclosure. Tanner is a rambunctious sort, recently out of prison and with no real direction for his life. But he does love his brother and will help him any way he can. That means helping him with well thought out robberies of a series of small West Texas banks.
The movie also tells the story of a retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) set out to find the men responsible for the series of bank robberies. Much of the film’s humor comes from their back-and-forth banter which features a slew of affectionate insults. Bridges is a hoot and is right in his comfort zone. You could say he’s channeling a variation of his Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit”. The movie doesn’t miss a beat when it switches to Hamilton’s story and his scenes add more suspense to the inevitable crossing of paths.
Sheridan and Mackenzie go to great lengths to keep this from being a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ tale. They try hard to keep the black hats off of Toby and Tanner and put them on the banks and the economic system that keeps people down even when they seem to be ahead. This is emphasized when we learn oil was found on the family’s ranch. But I’m not sure the movie does a good enough job keeping the brothers within the grey area it wants them to be in. There are moments when they do try and morally reckon with their crimes and their hardships clearly contribute to their reasoning. But as things intensify it’s hard to know how the movie wants us to feel about them.
There is a pretty significant plot-hole in the final act that I can’t quite shake, but otherwise “Hell or High Water” sticks its landing. The similarities to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” are obvious from the start and there even seems to be a nod to Humphrey Bogart’s “High Sierra”. Those influences add a lot to the film but its strength is in its camera and in its realization of a segment of the country slowly being smothered out. The characters are easy to latch onto and the timely authentic story, while not perfectly told, feels grounded in a very true current reality.
VERDICT – 4 STARS