Some movies are drenched in a time and place so thoroughly they become iconic. “Hell or High Water” does that for present-day West Texas.
This free-wheeling crime drama is packed to the gills with atmosphere, color, and performances to the point the movie itself speaks with a gritty drawl.
The movie stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two dirt-poor brothers who we meet while they are robbing a bank. Toby is a quiet and reserved divorcee, while Tanner is a wild and slightly unhinged ex-con.
As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear their crime spree has a thoughtful purpose to it and draws the attention of grizzled Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, who is merely an eye patch away from his performance in “True Grit”) and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
There is some cat-and-mouse here, but for the most part, the stories of the cops and robbers play out on parallel tracks.
There’s a lot of familiarity in this movie and, as you get your bearings, you expect the film to follow one of two paths typically trod by your contemporary rural crime drama. The first is to wind up feeling small and inconsequential and the other is to play it big and stylish.
“Hell or High Water” manages to blaze a middle ground where it stays true to its characters and setting through to the bitter end.
The movie was directed by longtime indie filmmaker David Mackenzie with a script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) and the pair deliver a movie that is somehow tense, moody, funny, and heartbreaking without giving the audience thematic whiplash.
There are certainly nits to pick here and there, especially after one too many on-the-nose monologues regarding the victimization of the working man at the hands of the banks, but for the most part, this is expert filmmaking.
There are also award-winning performances everywhere you turn. Bridges is dependably great as always. This part is so within his wheelhouse you almost take it for granted when he crushes it out of the park. But while Bridges is terrific, he’s only able to reach such heights with Birmingham to play off of. The stone-jawed character actor plays a half-Mexican/half-Native American lawman who nobly absorbs his partner’s casual racism as he deals with a man you can tell he loves almost as much as he loathes.
I’ve been driving the Ben Foster bus for a while now and his performance here as the untethered Tanner is essentially as reliably tremendous as Bridges’. Foster is an actor destined for an Oscar, it’s just a matter of his getting the right part.
Of course, the most pleasant surprise to come out of this movie is Pine. The pretty-boy leading man didn’t really seem to have much more to offer than the two-dimensional winning charm that has brought him to the cusp of the Hollywood A-list. But his performance as Toby is so soulful, reserved, and pained you can’t be blamed if you didn’t see it coming. It’s like discovering your house has a secret hot tub hidden behind your dining room wall. Bonus!
But the real star here is the West Texas countryside with its grubby diners, livestock strolling across the highway, and sweltering, relentless heat that roots this movie deep into the ground.
“Hell or High Water” is one of the best movies of the year so far and one that is worth seeking out.
“Hell or High Water” is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout, and brief sexuality.