Review: ‘Hell Or High Water’ Is A Crafty, West Texas Crime Drama

Hell or High Water may have been shot in New Mexico, but the film is 100-percent Texas. It’s a sharp neo-western crime drama with a laidback feel – on account of its sleepy, dust-speckled setting, where billboards advertising debt-free and fast-cash services lead to timeworn townships. I know this from experience; I’m a Texan. It’s a whole different country down here, or at least it was at one time. Texas is a place where everyone’s fixin’ to do something, where driving distance is measured in time not miles, and where the stars at night are really big and bright.

The “fixin’ to” that opens the film is a bank robbery at a Texas Midlands branch where two guys in ski masks yell and wave their guns around and frightened tellers bend to their demands in handing over cash. One of the stickup artists is more dangerous and daring than the other; clearly someone who enjoys robbing banks as if he were a modern day Jesse James. Hightailing it out of town in an old ‘75 Trans Am, it turns out this reckless duo are brothers. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob not for thrills or to necessarily get rich; the goal is a set monetary number and time is running out. With this setup one would expect the Howard brothers of making some bad bets and racking up debt that needs to be paid. Instead, the story carries the vestige of old west motifs with Toby determined to see his two boys have the type of life he and his forebearers could not.

Taylor Sheridan, who made the transition from television actor to screenwriter with 2015’s tension-filled war on drugs drama Sicario, brings that same passion with Hell or High Water. His writing, in which the dialogue crackles like branches in a fire, is bolstered by solid performances and David Mackenzie’s skillful direction. Ben Foster has the showier performance as the sociopathic, biker ‘stache sporting brother that doesn’t scare easily, but the real breakthrough is Chris Pine. Here’s an actor whose pretty boy looks has been an impediment in getting meatier roles. Commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise as Captain Kirk is a cool gig, but not as cool as the quiet intensity he exudes as Toby, whose pained expressions of bad luck and regret are about as beat up as his old cowboy hat.

Toby has mapped out the robberies and what it will take to make things right, and it is a clever scheme: they hit the Texas Midland Bank branches just after they open and limit themselves to unmarked bills from the registers. The getaway vehicles are then abandoned at the family farm and buried in pits that have already been dug. Cleverer: travel north into Oklahoma and launder the money at the closest casino. Why the Texas Midlands branches in particular is because this is the entity that is about to foreclose on the family property. The brothers need money they don’t have to pay the outstanding debt and taxes to save the land.

A simple plan becomes not so simple when Jeff Bridges gets word of the robberies. When he shows up on the screen as Marcus, a Texas Ranger close to retirement, it doesn’t take long for his southern drawl to win us over. Sounding like Rooster Cogburn with a steady diet of chewing tobacco and Whataburger, Marcus is a heavy-eyed, slow-moving man of law enforcement that mouths off racially insensitive quips about as fast as he can finish a six-pack of Shiner Bock. But don’t let his wry humor dissuade you; Marcus has a good understanding of how these two criminals operate even if doesn’t look to show it.

Soon enough the Howard boys and Marcus will be in each other’s line of sight, but the story does take a few unexpected turns before reaching the exciting climax. Sheridan makes the brothers dogged in their unlawful activities, crafting situations where their actions can be considered both immoral and justified. Having been dealt one bad hand of Texas Hold’em too many on account of the failing economy robbing them of their livelihood, fleecing the institutions that put them in such a state seems too attractive to pass up.

Hell or High Water
is a masterfully crafted drama about doing wrongs to make things right. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are exemplary as brothers who might as well be branded Bad Luck and Trouble – they encounter plenty of both knocking over banks in one Podunk town after another. Whatever obstacles stand in your way make it a point to see this film…come hell or high water.

Score: 10/10

Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Rating: R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality)
Running Time:
 102 minutes

For more on Hell or High Water catch Dave Morales as he interviews director David Mackenzie and stars Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.

3 Comments

  1. Keith

    August 12, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    “Chris Pine. Here’s an actor whose pretty boy looks has been an impediment in getting meatier roles.”
    Hate this kind of statements. Nobody is pointing a gun to him to pick the blockbuster roles with the big paycheck. Nobody is pointing a gun to him to make him dress like a metrosexual on red carpets and get yet another big paycheck selling perfumes for Armani. He made a choice at playing the Hollywood game by doing all those things, if he really were hurting to get meatier roles he’d be doing theatre for two bucks, petty boy looks or not.

    • Keith

      August 12, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      * pretty boy looks
      but petty is a good fit too

  2. Margaret Stratton

    August 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Well written, Travis! You got it right!

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