Bank robbers are irresistible. From The Great Train Robbery through Bonnie and Clyde, films have romanticized those who steal from wealthy, faceless institutions. Most bank robbers do not an agenda beyond getting rich and getting away with it. Hell or High Water, however, has something else on its mind. Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, this a thriller about downtrodden heroes who know exactly why they feel abandoned. The rich script has surprising depth: it includes hard-boiled dialogue, and has room for comedy and even some curiosity about human behavior. The strong performances anchor the film, adding emotional resonance to a story that uses suspense to make a larger point about basic dignity.
Most of the film takes place in west Texas, a desolate place where modernity left every ghost town. The businesses that are still open, at least in Sheridan’s mind, are the banks (we never see a post office). Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) aim to steal from as many banks as they can. They rob two of them in one morning, aided in no small part by the blight surrounding them. Their crimes attract the attention of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas law man who is on the cusp of retirement. Mackenzie follows these three men over the course a few days, letting them talk and speak their mind. Bullets fly when their paths eventually cross, as they must, and yet Sheridan does not create action for its own sake. There are real motivations at play.
While the towns in Hell or High Water seem dusty and abandoned, the film has a unique sense of atmosphere. Mackenize and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens strike a moody balance between the apocalypse and a pastoral fantasy. A lot of the film lacks any color, except yellow and brown, and yet the dark clouds offer a reprieve from the dry landscapes. There is a throwaway scene where Toby and Tanner joke around, playing in the dusk, and the shadows recall Badlands in how they mix grace with violence. The atmosphere seeps into the dialogue, too. The Texas attitude – tough, eloquent, deadpan – is important to how all the characters live and understand each other. There is a scene where Marcus and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) order some lunch, and their server’s no bullshit sales pitch has a hilarious delivery. And during the climax, bystanders are practically gleeful about the opportunity to stand their ground. Sheridan does not celebrate Texas gun culture, exactly, since he understands the inherent danger involved, but he does see how it defines the area.
If Hell or High Water were made fifty years ago, then the Marcus character would almost certainly be played by John Wayne. Bridges is no stranger to Westerns, and again he plays into the classic Wayne archetype: hardened on the outside, gooey on the outside, and peppered with casual racism. Marcus constantly messes with Alberto, who is a mix of Hispanic and Native American, and some jokes land better than others. As with all things in this film, the racist humor has a deeper purpose. It is a roundabout way for Bridges and Birmingham to arrive at camaraderie, and hit emotional notes. There is an important scene where Marcus, driven to the point of exhaustion, has a clumsy reaction to a triumphant moment. Bridges’ nonverbal acting is perfect because it’s so ordinary: cops are not always heroes, and they certainly do not move like they are in choreographed action sequences.
The overarching emotion in this film is anger. Almost all the characters feel abandoned, either by the country or an economy that no longer requires them. Mackenzie includes shots of billboards, full of false promises, since the banks are responsible for everyone’s collective loss. A distrust of institutions is what motivates Tanner and Toby: they were screwed over in a depressingly familiar way, so their crime caper is their way of coldly delicious revenge. The brothers, however, do not share the exact same purpose: Tanner is the wild one, an ex-con who relishes his bad behavior, while Toby is smarter and more morally astute. Toby has a speech that should resonate with folks who have been left behind in a post-industrial scene. He has another quiet, smart scene with his son that suggests a profound sense of guilt. In a lesser film, Toby would be a simple populist hero. Sheridan does something sneaky: all the characters have been explored before, in countless films, but he sees them first as fully-realized individuals.
David Mackenize’s last film was Starred Up, an English prison drama about fathers and sons. It is also about hardened men who must deal with a society that has no place for them. It is tough and without much sentiment, except there is incalculable reserves of emotion, too. For Mackenzie and Sheridan, whose last screenplay was Sicario, Hell or High Water is an announcement of their ambition. These are genre films, except they do not play by genre rules. There are action sequences, and they meld into the story so the shoot-outs and car chases have actual narrative purpose. Many major films this summer have been disappointing: they have felt like they were on autopilot, or had so much intervention that they were drained of entertainment. Hell or High Water is the antithesis of our blockbuster season. It is the rare thriller that has a specificity to it, as well as a sense of purpose.