'Hell or High Water' bathes in a modern-day western atmosphere
“Hell or High Water” – “I’ve been poor my whole life. It’s like a disease, passed from generation to generation.” – Toby Howard (Chris Pine)
Toby’s mother – after suffering in bed for three months - passes away, and he discovers that her bank is about to foreclose on her modest West Texas home along with acres of dusty, grassy prairie land. Her house and land are that all she had, and unless Toby immediately raises tens of thousands of dollars, the house will be gone. Months behind in alimony payments and no funds of his own, he sees no other choice but to rob a number of branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, the very bank that is about to foreclose on his mom’s ranch.
Since being poor is like a disease which passes from generation to generation, he fittingly asks his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), to help him find a “cure”.
Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan – along with strong performances across the board – transport us to rural West Texas and offer a spellbinding, modern-day bank robbery picture, which – at its core – feels like a western.
Although “Hell or High Water” does not include horseback chases, Toby and Tanner ride various cars and trucks all over the state and hit bank branches in certain small towns. In order to quickly raise enough money with the least amount of risk, they need to rob branches with low foot traffic, but every attempt – of walking into a bank with guns - carries tremendous risk. Their plan feels doomed from the start, and as bleak as West Texas is portrayed.
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures these bleak tones of the terrain with long stretches of highways (with an occasional “Pass With Care” sign pocked with bullet holes), the hot and beating sun, and brown, flat grassland in every direction for miles, and visually, the film feels like a cinematic cousin to the beautifully-filmed, “No Country for Old Men” (2007).
This is also coupled with the glum and sparsely-inhabited populous who generally act depressed, like human beings who all collectively suffered a death in the family. Toby and Tanner surely have, but with billboards touting “debt relief” or “quick credit solutions” in every city center, this part of the country seems to be suffering a slow financial death of its own.
The movie makes a clever comparison to the U.S. Army stealing land from Native Americans 150 years ago, but now, the banks are stealing the land all over again without a shot being fired.
Bankers may not be shooting anyone, but Toby and Tanner aren’t shy in using guns, and they certainly need them during their string of (attempted) robberies and also for clashes with the Texas Rangers. Toby and Tanner’s counterparts are Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), and they are piecing together the breadcrumb clues to catch them. Marcus and Alberto do not know that the Howard brothers are involved, but they surmise that the armed robbers are local, desperate and need to quickly raise the cash.
Bridges and Birmingham share terrific law enforcement chemistry with Marcus constantly badgering and teasing Alberto, while he just responds with small retorts, sighs or silence. Both men are very sharp and experienced, but Marcus tries to lull Alberto and the audience into this ignorant redneck routine.
We get the feeling that Hamilton really cares about his partner, but has no plausible way to express it, except teasing him. Their conversations help bring some needed levity, and their encounter with an elderly waitress at the T-Bone Café is one of the most priceless and hilarious exchanges that I’ve experienced all year at the movies.
With the unseen, long-arm of the law feeling close, the Howard brothers feel the raised stakes but have no choice and continue forward, hitting enough banks until they reach their magic number. Both pairs of men crisscross the plains with one pair hoping they do not meet, and the other desperately hoping that they do.
Their plan is a longshot, but Tanner especially feels like a terrible ending is inevitable and says to Toby, “I never met nobody who got away with anything.”
That makes sense of course, because Tanner spent 10 years of his 39 years of life in jail, and has little regard for general pleasantries or discourse. Like an alert and angry watchdog who waits for someone to step in his yard to find an excuse to bite, Tanner is not looking for trouble, he hopes for it. Foster’s remarkable performance – which deserves a Supporting Oscar nomination - brings Toby, and everyone within earshot, this horrible sense of disorder and chaos. I remember thinking that Tanner is in dire need of a girlfriend or domestic inspiration to keep him on the straight and narrow, but he would reject any sort of positive influence and spit in their eye with a generous amount of chewing tobacco juice.
With his mother’s bank, the rangers and his highly volatile brother, danger mentally and physically encircles Toby at every dusty turn, but the bigger peril – for him - is doing nothing and continuing the cycle of poverty for another generation. He’s taking the law into his own hands, and hell, that feels like a western to me. Western or not, this is one of the very best films of the year.
Image credits: CBS Films