A distinctive worldview triumphs over worn-down storytelling tropes any day of the week. Hell or High Water isn’t an innovative, twisty piece of storytelling, but it has an eye for its rural Texas setting that sets it apart, populating it with interesting characters top-to-bottom and with a political sensibility that it neither condemns nor condones, but sympathises with. It paints rural Texas as reliving it’s days as the Wild West, abandoned by the country as a whole, a place where most folks carry weapons to settle their own disputes. It’s hard for me, a Canadian who hasn’t seen any of Texas outside of the Dallas airport, to say how close to the truth this is, but it’s specificity creates a vivid world. When someone whose car choice clashes with the idea of the world being somewhat run-down enters the frame, its as a prelude to sudden violence when they mess with the wrong locals. The people here aren’t villains, but they don’t react well to being antagonised either.
Hell or High Water has a fairly classic setup, following two sets of partners. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are taking up bank robbery to make some quick cash. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on their tail. There’s no big twist behind this setup. Hamilton is even a couple weeks from retirement. But it’s used to great effect to examine how the plight of the working class has left a vacuum for Wild West tendencies to sprout up again, while also pointing out the limitations of the analogy. The days where you can expect to rob a bank and get away with it are long gone, muses one diner patron, and the next generation won’t be interested in playing cowboy, notes a rancher escorting his cattle from a brush fire. It can be heavy-handed in its musings at times, but it has clearly thought about to how to apply Western tropes to the modern world, and mostly succeeds wildly.
What makes Hell or High Water such a standout is how it takes care to create good, distinctive characters. It’s fringes are an embarrassment of riches, with numerous character actors making one-scene appearances to make tellers, waiters, and citizens pop with charisma (Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, and Katy Mixon all show up briefly). Bridges’ Hamilton is a bit more cantankerous than world-weary, but his chemistry with Birmingham goes a long way, and his less-than-subtle and less-than-appreciated racial jesting towards his Comanche/Mexican partner comes across as more annoying-uncle than heartless-bigot. Ben Foster, about twenty pounds heavier than last seen, hopefully gets a major career boost from this, as his portrayal of Tanner avoids short-fuse stereotypes while still coming across as dangerously unstable. It takes most of its running time to set up its world and its centre foursome, and when it comes time to bring the pieces together, it does so in a way that’s immensely satisfying on a visceral and narrative level. If the Old West is pretty much dead, Hell or High Water shows that the neo-Western still has blood left pumping.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Dir. David Mackenzie
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham
Rotten Tomatoes (98%)