A Texas Ranger investigates a series of bank robberies committed by two brothers. It’s surprising what you can do with simple premise like that. Take Hell or High Water, a blend of thrilling crime western and thoughtful character study. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) uses this to capture people’s frustrations during the recession and portray an aging expert who knows his days are numbered.
“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation.” That is how Toby Howard (Chris Pine) sees his life. It’s made even worst when the bank threatens to foreclose on the family ranch. With the land inherited to his son, he’s determined to break the cycle. After years of the banks robbing his family blind, it’s time to return the favour. So, he enlists the help of his firebrand ex-con to rob a series of banks across the county.
Enter Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a brilliant Texas Ranger who’s weeks away from retirement. With this case, he can at least go out on a high note. He figures out their brilliant strategy right away. Take only 5s, 10s and 20s from the drawers. They can’t be tweakers since as Marcus points out, “tweakers rob drug stores, not banks.” He knows there’s a more brilliant mind behind it and they are in it for the long run. So, begins a cat and mouse game between this man and the Howard brothers.
Just from the opening robberies, you know this film’s going to be special. In the first one, the brothers are forced to wait for the bank manager when the snarky secretary points out all the money’s in the safe. In the second one, Toby makes the mistake of leaving behind a bank client’s gun as the brothers leave. This is just the first 10 minutes. The action in this film are shot with a refreshing spin, calling out various character’s recklessness.
The film’s true strength is in the relationship between characters. The brothers clearly need each other to pull off these heists. Toby is an excellent strategist, but has no experience committing crime. Enter Tanner, who has plenty of experience in crime but lacks the restraint required to go the long road. They complement each other. Not so much for Hamilton and his Deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus often takes shots at his partner while avoiding conversations about retirement. Both Bridges and Birmingham get some great lines out of their exchanges.
Parker: “Don’t know how you’re gonna live without someone to outsmart.”
Hamilton: “Oh, who knows. Maybe one of these bank robbers is gonna want a gunfight and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory.”
At its core, the film is about people struggling to survive in a recession era. Toby and his family represents many working-class people who were screwed over by the banks, often approving loans they know their clients can’t afford. Throughout the towns are images of foreclose buildings and struggling minimum wage employees. Hamilton himself finds people he interviews take pleasure in the banks being robbed, having been screwed over themselves.
Like any great film, Hell or High Water never hammers you over the head with its message. It blends the message into the kickass action scenes, complex performances and sharp banter. You can still enjoy the film without the message, but the message adds an extra layer to this Texas cake.