Yee haw! A good ol’ fashioned Western, and much more. Set in the bleak, dusty prairie towns near Midland, Texas (filmed in New Mexico), “Hell or High Water” has good guys, bad guys, bank robberies, chase scenes and a final shootout in the stark but picturesque bluffs above the barren plains. Mostly, it has a satisfying story you can hang your hat on.
In classic Westerns, it’s easy to tell the good guys; they wear white hats. Here, the hats are all shades of gray, so this Western has evolved. As bank robber Toby Howard, pretty boy, Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) once again shows he can actually act. Teamed with his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), they fleece small banks in the West Texas countryside. Foster is typecast as a crazed, unstable loser. As usual, he is splendidly out of control.
Toby has lost all respect from his ex-wife and two sons. His big brother Tanner (Foster is two months younger than Pine) is an ex-con; seemingly unfit to live in society. After their mom passes away, her ranch faces foreclosure. Together, they embark on a desperate scheme of robbing a few banks to possibly make things right.
On their trail are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Instead of riding horses, they drive a “Ram-tough” pickup truck. Marcus is a hardened veteran Ranger charged with tracking down the culprits. On the cusp of retirement, this could be his “last rodeo.” Bridges has become such an iconic Hollywood figure, he just needs to show up to light up the screen.
Although he clearly works hard at his craft, Bridges does it so well and makes it look so easy, he puts a smile on your face in every scene. Alberto is of Mexican and Comanche heritage. He suffers a barrage of racially insensitive insults from the gravelly voiced Marcus. Somehow, an elderly redneck waitress bullies them both.
On the surface, this is a story of reckless, down-on-their-luck bank robbers. However, as the Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) screenplay unfolds, it becomes a dark, complex drama. This buddy picture features two pairs of partners. Each is mismatched in temperament and social skills. The brothers are constantly at odds with each other in their mutually agreeable plan, while the Rangers are ethnically and socially incompatible.
Director David McKenzie places the audience directly under the harsh West Texas sun, where everyone and everything seems dismal and forsaken. As the moving musical score by Nick Cave (“Assassination of Jesse James”) weaves in and out of each scene, we become immersed in the stark landscape as much as the compelling story.
The film has its share of solid action and violence, but is so much more when the guys sit on the porch or across the table at a diner, and just carry on a meaningful conversation. The seemingly forgotten art of movie dialog is truly riveting when there’s actually something to say by characters we care about. It also helps when we’re in the midst of an authentic environment and convincingly bizarre characters.
As the Rangers close in on their prey, the tension builds, story further unfolds and the action brings the audience to the edge of their seats. It even gets better as you leave the theater. You can’t help but weigh in on the social commentary and warped sense of justice. You’ll even reflect on the rich dialog supporting the fascinating character study.
“Hell or High Water” is 102 minutes and rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality. It’s difficult to classify. It seems familiar, but is brand new. It isn’t a who-done-it, that’s revealed in the first scene. It’s a thoughtful “indie” without the esoteric ambiguity. It doesn’t glorify crime, as there’s justice and consequences.
The movie is non-political, but carries a Bernie Sanders undertone. It’s like a gritty Coen Brothers movie, but for the masses. No matter, this is an instant classic for the Modern Western genre. We don’t fully understand the brothers’ motives, but we’re reminded of Bob Dylan singing, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: B