Toby (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster: Warcraft) are days away from losing their family home. They’re the latest in a long line of landowners in Texas who’ve taken unfair mortgages from banks that leave them on the brink of homelessness. Signs for debt relief and bank buyouts populate their small town, which is slowly decaying because of the economic collapse.
Toby has spent his life trying to preserve the family land. It’s his legacy and one he’d like to pass down to his children. Tanner is a jailbird who likes bar fights and women. The land has never meant anything to Tanner, but he’s loyal to his brother and wants to help Toby create a legacy.
To keep their land, Toby comes up with an idea: rob branches of the bank that’s foreclosing on the Howard homestead, taking only enough money to pay the mortgage and back taxes. Toby figures it will take five banks, and if they do it right, no one will die. Tanner figures it’s his chance to play outlaw again and immediately leaps into the role of desperado, unnecessarily beating bank employees and waving guns. They’re the modern-day James brothers, raising hell on the plains of Texas.
The heists attract the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges: The Little Prince), who’s on the brink of retirement. He decides that the Texas Midlands bank robbers will be his last big case, a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
Will Hamilton track down the men before they finish their crime wave?
Filled with great acting, a tight script and gorgeous cinematography, Hell or High Water is a fantastic twist on the classic Western genre. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) makes West Texas one of the stars of the film, utilizing the flat expanses of land to isolate Tanner and Toby, making them seem both adrift and trapped by their surroundings. Dilapidated towns and deserted streets set the scenes and make it clear that economic downturns have sucked the life from these communities, sparing Mackenzie from long boring rants about the evils of banks.
Mackenzie also works hard to make every speaking part in the movie memorable. Notable southern character actors like Dale Dickey and Margaret Bowman show up for scene-stealing cameos that help populate the film with intriguing characters. The culture of Texas, the pride and hubris that comes with Lone Star citizenship, is key to understanding the choices characters make. Being from Texas is not just a geographical fact but a state of mind. The people in these towns are armed and annoyed, which means that local citizens have no compunctions about starting a shootout during a bank robbery.
Pine, Foster and Bridges all carry their roles. Bridges’ southern drawl and bravado masks deep feelings of dread and inadequacy; he faces retirement the way a man faces a firing squad. As the bank robber brothers, Pine and Foster manage to forge a believable bond with a real tenderness. These are men who love each other deeply but are more comfortable expressing that devotion through a shared beer or a bout of roughhousing. Foster especially steals his scenes as the Howard Family screw-up. Brash, violent and terrifyingly charming, Tanner is a liability from the start, and one that seems to know his story won’t have a happy ending.
A love letter to Texas and a lamentation of the dying culture of the sprawling western lowlands, Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year. Topical and timeless, this tale of two outlaw brothers sounds like a story that could be told over a campfire. But a legend featuring a villainous bank plays well even if you’re not at home on the range. If you’re a fan of western lore or just great storytelling, Hell or High Water is the movie to see this summer.
Great Western • R • 102 mins.