Pretty much every character in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water conceals a weapon in its desolate and beautiful West Texas setting. They don’t conceal their feelings that the system (think banks) works against them. So in these laid back locales, the brothers Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing those establishments in order to save their family farm is something of a noble cause. However, the unpredictability and violence that normally follows those crimes (no matter how sensical they might be) are present.
Pine is Toby, a divorced father of two suddenly put in charge of the Howard ranch after the death of his mother. Tanner (Foster) is his loose cannon brother, fresh out of prison. When the pic opens, they are beginning their plot to pilfer enough cash from several branch locations to pay off a reverse mortgage that Mom was saddled with. Tanner’s outlaw past often interferes with Toby’s well-plotted scheme. Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is tasked with nabbing the duo, along with his half Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham), who’s often the brunt of Hamilton’s sort of good-natured teasing.
A peak into Tanner’s trailer home reveals a “Don’t Tread on Me” banner and it summarizes the general worldview of even the background players we see here. This applies to the Indian fellow Tanner plays poker with in the casino or the flirtatious waitress who gets a healthy tip from Toby. Yet one suspects that unseen forces have been treading on them for generations, as evidenced by the wasteland their small towns have become.
The typical genre fare we’re used to seeing are to be found here, from Hamilton being this close to retirement to Tanner’s combustibility. Where Hell or High Water succeeds is many facets, from the gorgeous cinematography to top notch performances. Pine sheds his leading man facade to blend in well with the scenery. Foster sells his off kilter criminal with relish (his reaction to being unexpectedly woken up by his brother tells you lots about who he is). Bridges’ Ranger gets opportunities to be a detective in ways he probably rarely does and it’s a joy to see the actor try out his garbled accent while doing so. While Hell or High Water may not be anything too different in the heist category of film, its fleshed out characters and actors playing them make it a worthwhile watch.
*** (out of four)