Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father trying to leave a legacy for his sons. Toby’s brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-convict with a short fuse and a oestentatious killer instinct. Working together, these brothers make plans to execute a chain of robberies against the bank that’s to close their ranch. In their way is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger who’s weeks from kicking back in retirement whilst sipping on a nice cold beer. As the siblings are about to bow out from the robbery business, they must prepare for their finale which entails a confrontation against a shady lawman. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up), Hell Or High Water is more than just a figure of speech.
David Mackenzie follows his prison drama Starred Up with a look into the good old lone star state of Texas. They know how to settle scores down there, in between tucking into a T-bone steak and slinging your rifle into your truck. Hell Or High Water is a modern western thriller. It’s like Michael Mann’s Heat took a stroll through Sicario and had a chat with the first season of True Detective. Hell Or High Water’s script is solid, penned by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan; riddled with grit, comedy and outright amusing Texan archetypes as well as in its characters. It shows two broken brothers in an even more damaged world, often pointed out by social corruption in Texas. I say corruption, it’s more along the lines of preposterous normalisation within society from the banks. In the dry heat of Texas, Pine (Star Trek: Beyond) and Foster (Warcraft) deliver the performances of their careers with their blood, sweat and tears. Not to forget to mention, the tight direction and jaw dropping cinematography to keep this modern western engaging and thrilling throughout.
The script contrasts two pairs of friends. You have our law-abiding citizens, Tanner and Toby. They grew up in poverty on a West Texas ranch that’s been failing since they were kids. Tanner was released from jail twelve months prior, but was nowhere to be seen during the slow death of their mother. On the side of the law, is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy (Gil Birmingham) who endures the banterous yet quite racist insults of his boss about his dual heritage background, which is Native American and Mexican. Luckily he can take it, and fires back some of his own, telling Marcus to stop being a creepy old man, but not in so many words.
This film is a tale of cowboys and Indians, touching on its back story, as we hear some interesting history of the land and conflicts between the Native Americans and the invaders, from Gil Birmingham’s Deputy Alberto Parker. We here about how all the tribes were slaughtered and the invaders now called the land “theirs.” Through greed and inhumanity, the New West built their new world, putting those down who would try to hinder it. Like many ranches in the area, the economic plague came to take the Howard family ranch away due to debt. When Toby (Pine) learns there’s oil on his land, he makes a plan to get his property out of this rut, givinng his two sons something to live for, thus ending the Howard legacy of being poor.
The script is the best thing about this movie, not only because it’s engaging, but it’s also intellectually intriguing with its social commentary. Banks are robbing hardworking people blind, thriving off their suffering and the working classes can’t make an honest living due to corporate greed. This is rampant in industries like farming and agriculture where the younger generations run to the city to make money as they don’t want to be as poor as the generation before them. There’s also that southern spirit of Texans “looking after their own” when a waitress establishes a connection with Toby, and turns angry to Marcus when he asks her to hand over her $200 tip as evidence. Not in the South. Not in Texas. Not in this diner. You can tell by her stance and confidence that this isn’t her first rodeo.
Filmed in New Mexico, this movie has really set the scene for Texas, among the gunslinging locals who don’t call the cops to settle score. If you want to settle a score, you do it yourself in your pickup truck, as we see in the climax when the locals go after our dynamic duo, with their guns in hand. Hell Or Highwater shows us that there is no South without guns. There is no South without T-Bone steak. There is no South without that dry heat that leaves you exasperated in half-dead towns with weathered storefronts as tumbleweed rolls across your feet. Giving these images new life is a stellar musical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which really helped set the tone of the whole movie.
With a great story and powerhouse acting performances from Bridges, Pine and Foster, Hell Or High Water is Oscar bait. But aside from that, it is pure entertainment if you want to lose yourself in a story for a couple of hours. Yes, it’s Oscar bait in the acting categories as well as in cinematography and music. Being Oscar bait is not a bad thing when the film is as raw and harsh as Hell Or High Water. This is certainly a movie to watch out for come Oscar season, and it’s one of the best films of the year as well.