In the 1960s and early 1970s, many Hollywood westerns took on a notably elegiac tone. Rousing old-fashioned adventures were increasingly replaced by melancholy meditations on the How the West Was Lost, as filmmakers began to seriously grapple with both the oppression of Native Americans and with stories about cowboys and gunslingers finding themselves trapped in a “civilized” world that no longer had any place for them. Echoes of those movies can be found at multiple points in David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, a present-day “death of the west” movie examining the most recent death of the west.
On the surface, the film offers a lean, effective set-up: two brothers go on a bank robbing spree, and two Texas Rangers are tasked with finding the brothers and bringing them to justice. However, an abundance of complex and challenging thematic ideas rumble beneath the surface of this seemingly straightforward plot: over the course of its 102-minute running time, the film manages to explore the near-inescapable cycle of poverty, the pitiless machinery of capitalism, the tragic historical patterns of human oppression, the nature of friendship, the complications of familial bonds and a variety of other subjects. Miraculously, it manages to do this without ever betraying its straightforward genre film setup or turning into a heavy-handed sermon (in other words, it's a more successful version of what Andrew Dominik attempted in his ambitious gangster flick Killing Them Softly).
The two brothers - Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma) – aren't exactly peas in a pod. Toby is participating in the robberies because life has pushed him to a point where he feels that robbing banks is his only option. He doesn't regard this as a permanent lifestyle change: he has a very specific goal in mind, and once he reaches that goal he's perfectly content with the idea of living with the consequences of his actions. Tanner, on the other hand, is a career criminal who loves living on the wild side. Odds are high that he'd be robbing banks under any circumstances. Still, a handful of personal issues have given the brothers mutual goals, and brings them as close to spending “quality time” with each other as they're likely to get.
The Rangers - Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, The Lone Ranger) – share a kind of conventionally amusing buddy movie sort of relationship. Alberto is the no-nonsense straight arrow, and Marcus is the unpredictable maverick who enjoys making a lot of jokes at Alberto's expense (most of these have to do with Alberto's Native American heritage, but every now and then Marcus will also make fun of Alberto's Mexican heritage). Naturally, there's a real mutual affection beneath all of this good-natured ribbing. The cliched cherry on top: Marcus is just a couple of weeks away from retirement, but needs to finish this One Last Job.
Don't let the immediate familiarity of these relationships and character types fool you: these people are much richer and more complicated than they seem. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that Mackenzie is using these seemingly predictable elements to both upend our expectations about how this story is supposed to proceed and to reinforce the idea that people are usually more complex than our first impression of them.
The film also leans on and upends familiar western imagery, giving the movie the construction of a classic western and finding effective modern stand-ins for the props of yesteryear (there are some particularly remarkable moments late in the movie in which large vehicles stand in for horses rumbling across an arid landscape). The handful of small West Texas towns that serve as the film's setting are largely as plain and sparsely populated as many of the towns in old westerns... but this time we're watching towns that are fast approaching death rather than towns that are just starting life. The small businesses are struggling; the people within them even moreso. Meanwhile, from town to town, the monolithic banks stand firm, and begin to look increasingly like oversized tombstones for these humble communities.
The actors are terrific. Pine and Foster create a brotherly chemistry that feels thoroughly genuine; the former's quiet reticence meshing beautifully with the latter's volatility (Foster's trademark intensity is certainly present, but the actor wisely allows that intensity to ebb and flow in order to explore a series of interesting and often unexpected character beats). Bridges has been in his share of big-budget junk lately, but here reminds us that he's one of America's finest actors. His big, somewhat darkly jovial performance doesn't hit a single false note, and there are scenes late in the film that rank among his strongest big-screen moments. Parker's work is quieter and less showy (much like the character he's playing), but he does a superb job of anchoring what may very well be the film's most thought-provoking scene. Even the minor supporting players are excellent, creating fully-realized characters in just a scene or two. You won't soon forget the pistol-packing bank customer who appears early on, the ornery waitress at the Texas diner, or the good ol' boy who assists Bridges during one sequence.
Mackenzie has made some fine movies (the gripping prison drama Starred Up is well worth your time), but this is pretty easily his strongest and most assured work to date. He makes tremendous use of his (sometimes awe-inspiring) locations, and manages to deliver a film that doubles as a thrilling (and often surprisingly funny) entertainment and as a profoundly moving reflection on the woes of America's past and present. It's one of those rare movies in which every minor detail seems to have been carefully considered: on a first viewing, it strikes me as the sort of movie that will benefit from repeat viewings. This is one of the year's best films.
Hell or High Water
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2016