The beautiful thing about simplicity is how well it disguises complexity.
Hell or High Water is, at first glance, a simple movie. It’s certainly not a subtle movie, reminding you of its ideals and messages with every scene change. Yet there’s something endearing about a film which wears its heart so firmly on its rolled-up sleeve. This is a smart movie; one which uses its straightforward “cops and robbers” storyline to great advantage. Like the one-stoplight towns featured in the film, this story is small enough that there’s time to learn everything about everybody. As a result, Hell or High Water is a character-driven Southern noir that’s easy to love because of the loving attention it gives each and every pulpy line and character.
We’re quickly introduced to the world of Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine), a pair of brothers running through the small towns of West Texas on a bank robbery spree. Their plans are simple: cash only, small bills, no one gets hurt. But loose-tempered Tanner seems hell-bent on getting sent back to prison while Toby only wants to make enough money to save the family ranch and pay off the debts that their deceased mother owed to the bank – the very same banks the brothers are robbing. (The whole movie loves that sort of thing.) Pursuing the brothers is cantankerous older Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Hell or High Water is, first and foremost, an actor’s showcase. (The beautiful cinematography is an added plus). There are simple archetypes here which the main four use to build from: The loose-cannon criminal, the “two weeks from retirement” law enforcement, the beleaguered partner. But Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan’s script gives them plenty of room to play around inside, and also adds a dose of world-weariness which pervades every exchange.
Ben Foster, last seen as a statue in Warcraft, is a powerhouse, intimidating men much larger than himself through sheer intensity. This makes him a perfect foil for the more subdued Pine, who gets to express his dramatic chops here through a sort of desperate stoicism. But the real treat here is the pairing of Bridges and the underrated Gil Birmingham, a buddy-cop dynamic where the “buddy” part is in question. Bridges subverts the close-to-retirement trope here, playing his investigation as a cowboy on one final ride. This bravado doesn’t fly with his long-suffering partner, who sees through Marcus’ often-a-little-racist taunting and prodding to expose his loneliness and loss of purpose. Birmingham also gets to play the voice of the minority here, which is relevant in a film about theft of property. He delivers his monologues with a matter-of-fact cynicism. There’s no joy in Birmingham’s voice when he explains that the grandchildren of the people who stole his ancestor’s land are now having it stolen from them. He has the delivery of man who’s been around long enough and endured enough to know that’s just how things are.
Lest you believe Hell or High Water is a cynical rumination on poverty, there’s also plenty of room for comedy in the character interactions. This ranges from the brotherly back-and-forth exchanges between Pine and Foster to each bit part, including farmers and waitresses. The film loves spending a minute or two here and there fleshing out working-class extras with such love and humor that it’s impossible not to get drawn in.
Before a Howard brother breaks into a bank, we witness a quick conversation between a teller and an old man regarding some classic coins found in a barn. At the end of the scene, the coins remain on the counter. Little touches like this go a long way to connecting the audience with the story. This is a film about people who are extensions of their land and their circumstances, and by showing others suffering similar problems as the Howards, it’s easier to sympathize with their actions. This also sets up a fun dynamic where Marcus and Alberto find difficulty getting anyone to aid them in their pursuit… at least until bullets start flying.
Hell or High Water also sports some beautiful, wide-open desert cinematography. There’s beauty in the desolation of the land, and the continuous chain of For Sale and Debt Relief billboards littering the landscape reinforce the movie’s already-open themes. There’s a distressed feel to this film; the picture feels hot and tired. It’s full of late-afternoon lighting and open horizons that add to the film’s sense of isolation. West Texas is its own world, where these people deal the hands dealt them (figuratively and literally, as part of the film takes place in an Oklahoma Indian casino).
This is a strong and engrossing thriller on all levels. The pacing is a slow burn, and it ends on a quiet exchange of anger and exhaustion which will sit with you for days. There’s real emotion here, channeled through men reticent to show it. The film also pokes lightly at the gun culture of the West, including placing the brothers at odds against a crew of vigilante townsfolk who only serve to make the situation worse. Hell or High Water lures you in with a very basic story and then does what it sets out to do so well that it’s easy to miss the deeper elements. “People” and “places” are two basic storytelling elements, and this film blends the two together masterfully to make a poignant crime drama this summer’s standout film.
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