Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges. Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon
Towns and even states held captive by specific industries live a feast or famine lifestyle. When the business booms, everyone lives well but when it hits a downturn and then eventually dissipates, the residual impact leaves quite the dent. This unfortunate circumstance plagues far too many small towns around the United States and causes what occurs in the plot of the incredibly engaging and emotionally evocative, Hell or High Water.
With the threat of losing their family home, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) begin robbing Texas Midlands Banks all over the state. In their effort to reach their monetary goal, they begin to get chased down by Texas Rangers, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Dynamics built within basic cops and robbers films never fails to astound me because when done well they can communicate a distinct message about the surrounding environment. It all comes down to the “why” of these bank robbers going after money. Most of the time, it does not come down to the sheer thrill but a specific reason these individuals risk their lives and livelihood in order to stick up a bank and take all of their money. Hell or High Water has this type of messaging in spades and the way it gets all laid out along with the general aesthetic around astounds in all the best of ways.
Taking place in several small Texas towns, the desolate nature of the setting says plenty about the economic status of where these characters live. Towns relying on certain industries that will pick up and leave whenever advantageous to the bottom line, which then leaves the banks. Institutions established for people to utilize their money out there bamboozling their patrons into unnecessary loans and then making it impossible for those same individuals to dig themselves out of those proverbial holes. This film feels angry and sad at the same time because it serves as the only emotion the people in these towns can feel. It sets what pushes Toby and Tanner to move forward with their plan.
At a character level, this film presents two duos with plenty of love emanating between them and animosity towards the other pair. Brothers Toby and Tanner, who quickly establish the predicament of their situation and the incredibly sad upbringing they established. Who stands out as a more stable figure also becomes quickly apparent but a strong love remains between the two as they try to set up the future for their family in a way they did not when growing up. Then there are the Texas Rangers, Marcus, and Alberto, who sit on the older side with the former most likely in his final assignment prior to forced retirement. Their level of banter between each other reaches a level of true friendship in how they jokingly say incredibly rude things and then smile. Even with these two pairs sitting on opposing sides of the law and conflict within this scintillating feature, they share quite a few similarities.
All four of them find themselves at a standstill and the end of a particular road in life. The brothers obviously have a deadline for when they must clear up the liens and debts on their family home while the rangers must contend with the end of their careers. Toby and Tanner fully do not expect to live with all the banks they are robbing while Marcus feels like he might as well die rather than retire seeing as he has nothing to live for. A dangerous dynamic, which informs what these men are willing to do in order to make their ends one worth speaking of.
As much as the actors absolutely nail these roles, the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan well and truly shines here. Genuinely a thrilling piece of work establishing these characters and their surroundings so well. Part of the indirect American wasteland trilogy he has written along with Sicario and Wind River, the script, along with David Mackenzie’s direction and Giles Nuttgens’s cinematography set the scene spectacularly well. The particular aesthetic set in this film brings a specific attitude to the towns and the added extras help solidify it as well. Bank robbing in large cities like New York and Los Angeles come with their own challenges, but trying to do it in Texas means you will encounter gun-toting citizens unafraid to play the hero. It makes the viewing experience wholly unique to what typically gets displayed in these types of features.
With this being a four-hander, the performances by the actors truly added the necessary filling to make this not only a thrilling chase but also emotionally moving. Chris Pine puts in his best work by a mile even if his indescribable good looks appear a bit out of place in this rustic setting. Both Bridges and Birmingham wonderfully craft a partnership where the history gets felt and a love and admiration continually emanates from them. However, Ben Foster truly dazzles here with the most challenging character to take on. Tanner has his demons based on what occurred with him and Toby’s father and Foster captures the sadness this man has and how he gets a genuine thrill from doing this bank robbing. Both an unstable but goodhearted presence in the feature, Foster delivers the goods here.
Serving both as an extremely entertaining cops and robbers film, but also an examination of the socioeconomic struggles in forgotten small Texas towns, Hell or High Water successfully creates a thrilling canvas for these characters to play in. Bolstered by strong performances by all cast members and an immersive environment pieced together by all the technicians in this feature, the end feels like you consumed a good well-earned T-bone steak.