Hell or High Water opens with a bang, as we witness a robbery at a branch of the Texas Midland Bank. It goes relatively smoothly, as Tanner and Toby Howard (two brothers respectively played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are smart enough to hit the bank right when it opens and there aren’t any customers to deal with. And then the brothers go and hit another Texas Midland Bank immediately afterward, which naturally doesn’t go quite as well. But at least they still get away to spend the money.
The Howards have a pretty good system figured out. They hit the banks first thing in the morning, then they take the cash to a casino in Oklahoma. They turn the cash into chips, do some gambling at the poker table — raking in even more money, since Tanner is that good at poker — and cash in the chips, thereby laundering the money. Oh, and they also have a backhoe ready to bury the POS stolen cars they use. Even better, the Howard boys are smart enough to only take loose bills (bundles might have ink packets), small bills (less suspicious, plus the smaller losses won’t bring as much heat), and they only steal from a bank that doesn’t have any branches outside of Texas (so the FBI won’t take an interest).
That said, this is hardly a foolproof plan. In large part because both of the Howards are such fools themselves. Tanner Howard is a bona fide maniac who served ten years in prison for killing his abusive father (I assume he was a minor at the time — otherwise, it’s hard to believe he could get such a light sentence for that in goddamn Texas). As for Toby, he’s divorced with two kids. The guy’s a sucker for a pretty face, and all the pretty faces come flocking to him because it’s Chris Pine. And of course there’s the fact that Toby doesn’t have the disposition to be a hardened criminal like his brother.
Toby has all the brains, but he’s also got too much heart. Tanner may know how to get away with robbery, but he doesn’t have the good sense to keep his own reckless nature in check. Their strengths may complement their weaknesses very nicely, but that’s not enough to stop their own weaknesses from coming back to bite them.
So why are the Howards committing all these bank robberies in the first place? Well, to start with, Toby owes his ex-wife (Debbie, played by Marin Ireland) a whole lot of money in child support. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the real estate that Toby just inherited.
See, while Tanner was out being the black sheep of the family, Toby stayed at home to take care of their ailing mother, who died a few weeks before the film opens. In her will, she left Toby with the family ranch, which happens to be sitting on top of what must be the last remaining untapped oil in all of Texas. Unfortunately, Toby also inherited his mother’s debts. And if those debts aren’t paid off in the next few days, then the bank will take the land and all the oil underneath it.
It bears mentioning that Toby eventually plans to leave the ranch — along with the oil underneath it and everything else he has — to his two boys. Toby doesn’t really care what happens to him, he only cares about what he’s leaving behind for his kids. And it never once crosses his mind that while his sons may inherit so much money, they may also inherit the guilt and shame of what their father did to get that money.
Compare all of that to Tanner, who plans to die in a hail of gunfire before the guilt of his actions can ever catch up with him.
The film is very much set against the economic recession, when it seems like everybody’s only barely scraping by unless they’re bankers or oil tycoons. Public sympathy is strongly against the banks that the Howards are robbing, which is definitely a big help for them. However, the film is also very much set in Texas, the last best refuge of the Wild West mentality. It’s practically guaranteed that everyone in the vicinity is armed, and they’ve been carrying guns their whole lives just waiting for the chance to live out their fantasy of stopping bad guys without the need to call 9-1-1.
Couple all of this with the aforementioned lack of federal interest, and things are that much more difficult for Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), the Texas Ranger who’s been assigned to track down the bank robbers. It may also be worth mentioning that Hamilton is only three weeks away from retirement, and he’s been partnered with a younger Native American/Mexican mix named Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
So what we have here are a team of two bank robbers versus a team of two Texas Rangers. All four characters are wicked smart, very good at what they do, and they have effortless chemistry with their respective partners. As such, it’s tremendous fun watching them as they work with and against each other.
What makes it even more enjoyable is that the dialogue flies right off the page. The banter is amazing, and there are some fantastic one-liners. What makes it even better is that the supporting characters and one-off characters are quite possibly the most instantly memorable that I’ve ever seen outside a Coen Brothers movie. It’s hard to believe that this is only Taylor Sheridan’s second screenplay, but considering that his first was Sicario… yeah. Holy shit.
(Side note: Keep an eye open for Sheridan himself, who gets a notable speaking cameo role as a cattle rancher.)
This is a very funny movie, but the comedy relief serves primarily to highlight the deeper themes. The Howard Brothers trade barbs at each other, illustrating how the two love each other yet constantly challenge each other. Meanwhile, Parker gives his partner all manner of grief over Hamilton’s encroaching age while Hamilton retorts with all manner of insensitive jokes about Parker’s religion and ethnicity. Yet the characters are still sympathetic because both of them can give as good as they get, and it would frankly be more surprising if the old white Texan didn’t push right up against the line of political correctness. And anyway, it’s Jeff Bridges — of course he delivers the humor in a charming and affectionate way.
But Parker’s Native American heritage brings up another crucial point. The movie invokes the degradation of the Native Americans, drawing a parallel between their treatment at the hands of the government and how the poor are being treated at the hands of the wealthy. The point is questionable, to say the least. Even so, it’s handled with infinitely more taste and nuance than Free State of Jones did while making a similar point. I appreciate films that try to address poor people getting screwed over by the One Percent, and I appreciate films that try to make peace with white guilt over trespasses committed against people of color. But combining the two seems like a terribly unwise idea that might come off as insensitive. Even the poorest and most destitute among us today — of any color — is still afforded more rights than a person of color back in the early 1800s. Just saying.
That said, in case it isn’t obvious enough from everything else I’ve typed so far, there’s a whole lot more going on here. Vigilante justice and karma, shame and guilt, families and the legacies we leave for them… there are a whole ton of themes that get some detailed exploration as the film unfolds. All of this makes for some compelling storytelling, especially when coupled with such fascinating characters and wonderful dialogue.
A mention is also due to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (no, not the comic book author), both of whom contribute music that elegantly adds to the neo-western feel. We’ve also got cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and director David Mackenzie, both of whom deliver visuals that make it perfectly clear just how isolated the action is. Just like the old days of the Wild West, it feels like civilization is a million miles away and everyone here is left to fend for themselves.
But what really makes the film carry such dramatic weight is its matter-of-fact attitude toward death. The characters don’t get long-winded deathbed speeches. The characters don’t even get the satisfaction of a death that looks cool. No, when these characters get shot, they die instantly. Sometimes it isn’t even immediately obvious when a character is knocked backwards with a hole in their head, and they’re dead just like that. This movie is very clear in painting death as sudden and inglorious, hammering home the point that everything these characters have ever accomplished could all amount to nothing in a snap.
Hell or High Water is phenomenal. It’s funny, it’s gripping, it’s suspenseful, it’s action packed, it’s incisive, and it’s thought-provoking. Chris Pine delivers what’s probably the best work of his career so far, Jeff Bridges holds the screen like the legend he is, Ben Foster proves exactly why he’s a criminally underrated actor, and every single character — down to the tiniest bit role — is memorable. This one comes HIGHLY recommended, definitely worth tracking down.