When Jacob Riis first published his groundbreaking book How The Other Half Lives in 1890, it was to expose the plight of the urban poor, immigrants especially, to the middle and upper-class who could do something about it. In David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, it’s less about teaching the audience how to help them, than to allow Americans to understand each other in a way that is both well-crafted and entertaining. With a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, whose work on last year’s Sicario also brought the viewer into the muck of the War on Drugs along the United States-Mexico border, what’s presented is a world that I have never seen up close and that I will likely never have to experience in the way that the characters in this film do.
The film follows two brothers: Toby and Tanner Howard, the former is a recently-divorced father who wishes to provide a better life for his estranged sons than that which was given to him while his brother both wants to help him and provide for his own criminal ways. They set out to rob a series of banks over the course of several days to pay for a reverse mortgage taken out by their late mother. When oil is discovered on the property, Toby, the smart one of the two, realizes that the land has to be saved by any means necessary. Toby is played with chiseled grit by Chris Pine, who makes a dramatic 180 degree turn from his usual roles in films like Star Trek or Into the Woods. Here he is not afraid to show the vulnerability and the layers of his character as he struggles to put together a meaningful existence on the wide Texas plains. Tanner is played with similar grit, although a much more demented style, by Ben Foster, whose antics tend to drive the plot and to mess up the plans created by Toby in this cops and robbers story.
But this wouldn’t be a good cops and robbers film without cops, and to take that role there are two Texas Rangers: Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, and Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham. Hamilton is just days away from retirement, and no, that’s not just an old cliche in this film, it’s rather a way to make you sympathize with this old, rustic cowboy. Although Jeff Bridges’ natural charm is enough to do that anyway. Parker, in Hamilton’s words, is a “half-breed,” half Mexican and half Native American. Hamilton is not afraid to throw around plenty of demeaning jokes Parker’s way, and although they don’t always hit or play as funny as Sheridan would like, they have a sense of realism about them that drives their scenes along. The banter between the Howard brothers is somewhat more interesting, but that’s probably a good thing seeing as they’re the main characters.
What proceeds from this is a wild ride of bank robbery, high-speed getaways, and high-stakes games in Indian casinos. More than just a Bonnie and Clyde story between two brothers, this is a human story where the robbers aren’t just motivated by base human desires, but a real wish to do good. The Texas Midlands backdrop accentuates this as there is a sense of a traditional code among the men and a deep respect for the women, old Western ways that permeate the interactions between the characters. It’s sort of a cultural understanding that the film expects you to bring in with you, this is Texas after all. But there is another layer to the system that you may not be aware of, and it plays out between this unspoken moral code, the banks the Brothers Howard are robbing, and the system it represents. The film seems like the dark side of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in a couple ways: examining the American Dream as creating a better life for one’s children through the eyes of disenchanted Westerners. While Nebraska makes use of black-and-white cinematography to add to the dreariness of the characters on a comedic backdrop, in Hell or High Water it’s the world that the characters inhabit that creates this weariness; their decisions speak volumes.
This is where I come back to my earlier reference, in that the film is full of people living decent lives who commend the Brothers for what they’re doing. Like modern day Robin Hoods they steal from the banks and give to the nice people that they encounter on these escapades. When Tanner robs a bank across from a diner, Hamilton thinks he’s slipped up, and yet the men who saw the brothers commend them for screwing a bank that’s been doing the same to them. Even more surprising to Hamilton is that the waitress who served the, albeit with a hefty tip, refuses to give them evidence or any information that might be helpful. These are people who stick together because there is a system that has been taking their money and deep down they sympathize with the brothers, not because of their ends, but because of their means for doing it. In a year with a tense political climate in which the two sides seem unable to understand how one could vote for the other, what their life would have to be like to need their candidate, this film is a revelation.
In the end, Hell or High Water is an entertaining heist film, packed with action and humor to keep most viewers entertained, while also providing a deeper political message that has a surprising amount of relevance. All of the actors here deliver, and the script does as well, thanks to both Sheridan’s writing and Mackenzie’s skilled and patient direction that makes up for some of the holes in the script. I would definitely recommend this film, especially considering that it isn’t making as much money as it should for the quality.