David Mackenzie’s extraordinary “Hell or High Water” is a modern-day Western chiseled from outlaw legend. Set in a variety of anonymous Texas towns, each one more podunk than the last, it presents a 21st century desert-scape where police cars still yield to cattle drives on sleepy two-lane thoroughfares, where men arrive at gas stations on horseback, where most dwellers wear cowboy hats of double-digit gallons, and where everyone packs heat, concealed or otherwise.
In this surreal environment, two ski-masked robbers equally extracted from another time begin a number of early-morning heists, targeting the vulnerable branches of a regional bank. They are brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), the prior a brooding law-abider, the latter a career criminal newly released from prison.
As they traverse West Texas in a variety of stolen or questionably obtained jalopies, we soon discover that there’s almost a screw-the-Man nobility to their sloppily executed crimes, which are borne of personal hardship. They rob Texas Midland banks because Texas Midland foreclosed on their farm.
This means little—why should it?—to the pair of poky Texas Rangers leisurely retracing the perpetrators’ steps. They are characters seemingly plucked from the cutting-room floor of a Coen Brothers policier but given colorful new lives in the sure hands of director Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus is a cotton-mouthed fossil who treats his impending retirement like a saloon spittoon. Gil Birmingham’s Alberto is his partner, whose split Mexican and Native American heritage has earned him the ribbing of “half-breed” from the sardonic Marcus. In turn, Alberto chides his partner’s age with jokes about Alzheimer’s and rocking chairs. Personal insults are both their form of commune and their defense mechanisms, their way of expressing love for each other and acknowledging their mortality.
Each of their scenes is rife with quotable one-liners that, again, recall the Coens at their most inspired and site-specific, like Marcus’ observation, to a battered branch president, that “they bopped you in the snozzola, huh?” But to say that the Rangers’ quippy, low-pursuit chase of their prey is the movie’s comic relief isn’t quite accurate: “Hell or High Water” is absurdly funny even when they’re not onscreen, thanks to the unusual faces and attitudes that populate its periphery.
The warning to “Don’t Mess With Texas” resonates throughout: Bank tellers don’t cower in subservience; they insult the intelligence of the criminals. Old men in bank queues don’t sit idly by, they reach for their pistols and fire back. The waitress who receives a sizeable tip from Toby refuses to turn over the bills for evidence, because after all, they pay half her mortgage. The great Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges comedies of yore come to mind—everybody’s an opinionated sparkplug and a fully fleshed character, even if their screen time is approximately one minute.
And yet, when it needs to be, this eccentric anachronism can be achingly tender and heart-stoppingly tragic, achieving both emotions while avoiding the temptations of sentiment or cloying soundtrack cues. The score is another of the film’s strong facets, a combination of curated Americana ballads and a masterfully moody score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which, like so much of their work, conjures a space where God and the Devil transact.
This isn’t to say “Hell or High Water” is pure elegy for a mythic genre. Despite Chris Pine’s Butch Cassidy-like charms, the brothers are neither romantic nihilists nor populist Robbin’ Hoods. They are vengeful, self-serving victims of The System who, in their small way, attempt to recapture a slice of the pie that’s been taken away from them. While Mackenzie never preaches about this, his selection of establishing shots speaks louder than any dialogue about the state of the heartland ever could. “Hell or High Water” frequently stops its chase to smell the recession: buildings in decay, omnipresent “closing” and “for sale” signs, desperation hanging thickly in the shuttered air of so many ghost towns, absent only tumbleweeds to underline the neglect.
A howl of graffiti on a broken-down edifice reads “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” It would seem post-apocalyptic if it didn’t look so familiar.
“Hell or High Water” opens today at most area cinemas.