Review: Hell or High Water
By John Corrado
★★★★ (out of 4)
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), the former a divorced father and the latter an ex-convict, are brothers who are violently robbing a series of banks around West Texas, trying to make back enough money to pay a debt.
Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the former a gruff veteran sheriff and the latter his longtime deputy, are partners in law enforcement who are tracking the brothers and trying to stop them before they reach the next bank.
These are the four characters at the centre of Hell or High Water, an Oscar-nominated bank robbery thriller that also doubles as a compelling human drama, set in the fading small towns of post-recession America.
The brothers are robbing the banks because they need to raise enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage they owe on their deceased mother’s farm property, so the debt doesn’t remain hanging over their family for generations to come. They are stealing from the banks that have screwed them out of their own money, channelling the cash through casinos, and then paying it back to the banks in a stroke of dark genius. The Texas Rangers are tracking them down because it’s their job, and Marcus is looking for the thrill of the chase one last time before settling into the mundanity of retirement in a few weeks.
Taylor Sheridan’s tautly written screenplay does an excellent job of developing both the two robbers and the two rangers, showing the dynamics and conversations both pairs share between them, and building up quiet suspense as we wait for their stories to converge in the last act. The four actors bringing them to life – Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham – all deliver outstanding performances and deserve praise both individually and as a tight ensemble. The film also finds humour in the way it captures the camaraderie between its characters, with Marcus often playfully ribbing Alberto about his Indigenous and Mexican heritage, to which Alberto responds with jabs about Marcus’s old age.
The film works because it humanizes its characters and gives them reasons for their actions, with economic desperation being the main motivator. One of the first things we see in the film is a sloppily written message scrawled on the side of a building near the site of their first bank robbery. “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” the graffiti says, and it’s a message that looms over the entire film. Along the side of the roads the characters travel down, billboards advertising debt relief services loom overhead, like false idols promising salvation in these increasingly dark times.
Underneath the shootouts and robberies that punctuate the film, Hell or High Water is first and foremost a study of how the failing economy has left rural areas dirt poor, left to rely on crime or selling their land for oil drilling to make any sort of living. The film takes place in a time when the government added insult to injury by bailing out the banks instead of the people, only increasing the cycle of poverty and economic inequality that still plagues so many in what should be a time of growth.
When locals at a diner are questioned about the identity of the robbers, who have just held up the bank next door, they don’t seem all that motivated to help track them down. These locals might not be the ones to actually stage a robbery, but they have no moral objection to just sit back and watch while someone else does, because they have all been screwed over by the banks. They see the robberies as justice being served. The tragedy is the lives that are affected or lost in the process.
The dusty roads, sweeping fields and sleepy small towns that provide the backdrop of Hell or High Water give it the feel of an epic tragedy, where good men are forced to do bad things and the need for money leaves carnage in its wake. Director David Mackenzie stages it like a classic western, culminating in a standoff that trades horses for pickup trucks and upgrades pistols to assault rifles. Equally gripping in its moments of action and character drama, Hell or High Water is a piece of sturdy and classical filmmaking, that feels at once timeless and entirely of its time.