In 1971, a very young Jeff Bridges starred in The Last Picture Show, a bleak portrait of small-town life in the land once associated with cowboy swagger and manifest destiny. Now a more seasoned Bridges stars in Hell or High Water — also set in Texas and also a story of the heartland's decline. The actor may have graduated from playing a callow teen athlete to playing a grouchy, worldly-wise Texas Ranger, but the landscape has only gone downhill.
Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) aren't exactly subtle about this: The film opens with a long tracking shot that includes graffiti lamenting, "Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout." Those words decorate the wall of the podunk bank that brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) will rob a few minutes later. The bank, we soon learn, is poised to foreclose on their family ranch, and they're determined to pay off their debt with the institution's own stolen funds.
It's a familiar story with a familiar populist undercurrent, reminiscent of '60s and '70s flicks such as Bonnie and Clyde and Dog Day Afternoon. But Hell or High Water isn't a solemn or joyless film, as too many "message" movies are today. Instead, like the classics it recalls, it's full of humor, texture and colorful Americana — with bit players who often steal the show.
The film alternates between the perspective of the brothers and that of the two Rangers tracking them. Tension builds as we wait for the inevitable moment when the two parties' paths will cross.
Meanwhile, tensions simmer within each pairing, too. While ex-con Tanner takes a bit too much pleasure in sowing chaos, divorced dad Toby focuses on ensuring a future for his kids. Foster and Pine are believably seedy, affectionate and downtrodden. But their iconic characters are ultimately less interesting than Bridges' Marcus Hamilton and his younger partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whom Hamilton ribs relentlessly for his Mexican and Native American ancestry. It's Parker who gets the last word, though, in an unforgettable scene in a tumbleweed-blowing town.
While this jaundiced western draws inevitable comparisons to No Country for Old Men, plumbing the depths of man's evil doesn't seem to interest Sheridan. His lively script suggests he'd rather listen to a sassy waitress (Katy Mixon) try to pick up Toby, or chronicle the bravado of a small-town sheriff eager to hang the robbers with his own hands. (Wouldn't that get him in trouble? Hamilton asks. "Only if they can find the tree.") Such dry exchanges are well suited to a dry, barren landscape. And the deft sketches of minor characters — each surviving tough times in their own way — give human faces to the film's messaging.
With every shot out the brothers' car window, Mackenzie reveals "Debt Relief" billboards and other signs that might as well say, "America's working people are in trouble." It's heavy-handed, yes, but is it wrong? The film doesn't offer solutions or glorify fighting the system. While there's lawless exhilaration in the brothers' heists — for hothead Tanner, at least — there's also the realistic ugliness of terrified tellers and bruised bank managers.
In the end, Hell or High Water is less memorable for the story it tells than for the terrain it maps — a terrain that white Americans tend to consider their birthright, forgetting whose it was before them. Toby is eager to reassert his ownership of a parcel of land and pass it to his sons, yet by the final scene, the phrase "lord of the plains" rings with bitter irony. A dark but not misanthropic movie, Hell or High Water asks how much it's worth fighting to preserve a way of life that still feels ornery and vital, even in its death throes.