United States, 2016. Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. 102 minutes. ★★★★
Roughly halfway through Hell or High Water, Alberto Parker—a Texas Ranger of mixed Comanche and Mexican heritage, played by Gil Birmingham—lays out the film’s thesis. Looking over the picked-over remains of a dying Texas town, he observes that the land once belonged to the Native American peoples. Then the whites came and stole it. Today, the descendants of those white ranchers and farmers find that land being stolen from them in return, by the banks who were supposed to help them buy and keep it.
One such theft drives the film’s plot. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has discovered oil on his late mother’s ranch, and he wants to give the land to his estranged sons in trust. Problem is, he can’t afford to pay off the reverse mortgage his mother took out on the property. With the help of his troubled brother Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, he launches an audacious plan to pay back the bank with money stolen from its own branches. The resulting robberies draw the attention of the Texas Rangers in the form of the aforementioned Alberto Parker and his senior partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot staring down the barrel of retirement.
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also writer of Sicario, but possibly best known as an actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy) present us with standard crime drama tropes, such as the wise and world-weary cop on his last case, and the dichotomy between two brothers (Toby is down-to-earth, Tanner impulsive and hot-headed). But they resist the urge to paint the film by numbers, instead positing the story as an American tragedy. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom—Sheridan derives a few moments of levity from Hamilton and Parker’s working relationship—but darkness hangs heavily over the procedure. Toby meant well, but once he set his plan in motion, he sealed his own fate…and the fates of others.
Mackenzie underlines this theme with his visuals, presenting the setting as a hellish, desolate wasteland, seemingly populated only by lost souls and those who seek to take advantage of them. (Hamilton and Parker, representing the law, serve to preserve order but don’t act as moral agents.) Expect plenty of shots of thirsty desert and winding highways, but delivered in a subdued style. Action is used sparingly; violence is quick and brutal. Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who perhaps know Americana better than most Americans, add to the atmosphere with a sparse score occasionally punctuated by songs by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch.
Ultimately, though, this is an actor’s showcase. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham all bring depth to archetypal characters running the risk of seeming two-dimensional. But Bridges brings genuine likability to his gruffness (and seemingly endless supply of racial humor), and Foster reveals the humanity behind Tanner’s nihilism and borderline psychosis. These two roles are somewhat larger-than-life—this is Texas, after all—but neither actor goes over-the-top. Pine and Birmingham put in less showy performances, all the better to contrast with their partners.
Hell or High Water is more than a crime drama or action-thriller; by contrasting its character archetypes with the harsh reality of unrestrained capitalism’s vicious economic circle, it’s nothing less than an elegy for the American Dream. One of the year’s best.