There has been a lot of analysis of why this has been one of the dreariest moviegoing summers in recent history, with a combination of audience rejection and lackluster releases making this season an unhappy experience for paying customers and anxious studios alike. But there may be hope yet, and it’s not to be found in the latest multiplex-clogging effects-driven would-be blockbuster, but in a relatively small, character-based, and utterly riveting crime drama. Hell or High Water is the movie and it’s simply one of the best films of the year, a tense, modern-day Western suffused with desperation, dread and anger, as well as humor, empathy, and a strikingly immersive atmosphere.
Directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers Toby and Tanner, whose family ranch is about to be foreclosed upon by the local West Texas bank that seems to be absorbing everything in their economically depleted region. Toby is quiet, thoughtful and doing what he can to stay straight and provide for his estranged wife and sons, while Tanner is a dangerous loose cannon fresh out of a stint in jail. Their plan to rob all the nearby branches of the very bank that is about to repossess their land – and use that money to pay off the debt – is both clever and risky, and their first couple of hits draw the attention of a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who wants to solve one more case before hanging up his badge.
There is so much rich material here, from the bond between the brothers to the strange camaraderie between Bridges’ Marcus and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). And then there is the socio-economic backdrop against which the story is set.
There are ghosts aplenty in the film, such as the brothers’ long-gone, abusive father, as well as Marcus’ wife. Even the spirits of the Native Americans and the settlers who once roamed and fought over the land and are also now departed remain present while the banks are vacuuming up the land and turning its remaining residents into either defeated, deprived serfs or hardened, nothing-to-lose criminals. Tanner and Toby teeter on the edge between both, driven by loyalty to family and each other but inching closer to doom with each robbery they commit.
All three leads deliver stunningly detailed and three-dimensional performances, with Pine – who has never seemed comfortable in the leading-man roles Hollywood has tried over and over to foist on him – doing perhaps the very best work of his career as the complex, haunted and internalized Toby, who carries the weight of the world on his slumping shoulder, and whose face wages a constant battle between regret, doubt, and determination. Foster’s Tanner could easily be played as a total psychopath, but while the actor brings his trademark unsettling intensity to the role, he also gives Tanner subtle emotional shadings and knows just when to pull back so that the character does not become a simple monster. Their chemistry is real and affecting; while you never quite sympathize with them, you can understand why they’re pursuing the path they’ve chosen.
As for Bridges, the legendary actor has done variations on this kind of growly, earthy curmudgeon before, but rather than fall into self-parody he gives Marcus much more depth than you might initially suspect. His strange friendship with the half-Mexican, half-Native American Alberto is borderline disturbing at first: their exchanges are made up mostly of well-worn insults and racist taunts, and Birmingham (another great performance) uses his eyes to show which ones still hit home a little too sharply. But their love and respect for each other is brought painfully to the forefront as well, and Marcus eventually reveals himself as a man staring into a future where he may no longer have any purpose in the world.
The film’s two main plot threads – the brothers’ crime spree and the Rangers’ pursuit – and its four main characters all get an equal amount of time and coverage in the film, something that was lacking in Sheridan’s Sicario script, and the gray areas here are also far more nuanced than in that interesting, but deeply flawed, drug cartel thriller.
No one here is exactly a hero or a villain, and everyone – lawman and criminal alike – recognizes that the real evil eating at the heart of their faded American dream is the megabank crushing everything in its path. But the message is not a heavy-handed one, and Hell or High Water is not a lecture on what is wrong with the country. This is a compelling, completely engrossing crime thriller that nevertheless fully understands what can drive people to such desperate measures (in one excellent scene, a waitress who has been left a $200 tip by the brothers refuses to turn the tainted money over to the Rangers because she needs it to pay her mortgage).
Mackenzie directs with a sure hand, moving the story and characters crisply along while infusing each scene with a concise, textured sense of the geography and locales. West Texas – dry, hot, silent, seemingly barely populated – is as much a character in the film as the actors, and the settings and cinematography evoke both the decay of large swaths of modern America as well as the untamed and unknown nature of the Old West, as if both are existing simultaneously in a timeless, overlapping limbo. In its own way, Hell or High Water also exists in that same nether region, its characters caught between their relationship with the land and the relentless, cruel march of modern-day society. Like so many of us, none of them know precisely where they will land, or what they will do when they get there.
Hell or High Water is in theaters this Friday, Aug. 12, and expands nationwide on Aug. 19.