As bank robbing brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) sit down at the offices of a trust fund to deposit some of their ill-gotten gains, an uneasy tension engulfs the room. It’s obvious that their money isn’t legitimate, and a pair of experienced detectives, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), are hot on their tails. Yet, as it turns out, the manager (Kevin Rankin) is happy to take the risk in hiding the cash, calling the brothers’ scheme to pay back an oppressive mortgage with the banks’ own stolen money ‘the most Texan thing [he’s] ever seen.’ It’s just one of the many great character and atmosphere moments in David Mackenzie’s ode to the American South in his biggest film yet, Hell or High Water.
A Texan heist film might not be the most obvious move for Mackenzie, following up the gentle but ambitious love story Perfect Sense and his starkly realistic look at the British prison system in Starred Up, but it proves to be a fantastic fit of director and material. Working from a rich, layered script by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water sticks with the ruggedly violent overtones of Starred Up, but dives deeper into the characterisation of the ensemble and widens the scope, creating a semi-Western that seeks to evoke the spirit of Texas.
Throughout a series of very well-written scenes of just two guys chatting while driving, we see the true vastness of this state. In many ways, it’s majestic, but the sheer breadth of land isolates people. This is vital to the logistics of the story, which has Toby and Tanner pull off each heist with a different car, burying each vehicle after one use, but is also reflected deeper in the film’s core. Isolation breeds desperation, which in turn creates violent, unhappy men, capable of communicating mainly through violence and slurs.
Toby and Tanner’s heists have far more in common with those of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines than Heat or any similar mass shootout robberies. They hit only small banks as early in the morning as possible, and only grab loose bills, never more than $20. As it turns out, they’re not robbing to get rich with the money – the land their mother left them is sitting on an oil deposit, so they need $42,000 before the foreclosure date. Toby wants to leave his estranged wife and kids a legacy, and this oil rich plot of land will be worth $50,000 a month.
Toby’s exact plans make him the more careful of the two brothers, while Ben Foster is typically livewire as Tanner, an ex-con who has no stake in the house (he was cut out of the will), but couldn’t say no to his little brother’s scheme. The calm vs volatile dynamic does come into play in some of their interactions, but Sheridan’s scripts generally shirks that kind of obvious conflict, instead building a very believable brotherly relationship. They’re protective of one another even in their most heated exchanges, and their reminiscing has enough inside jokes and skipped details to make their shared history feel very real.
At the same time, nearly as much care is given to the relationship between detectives Hamilton and Parker, played with laconic wit by Bridges and Birmingham. They’ve clearly been partners for years, and although they’ve long settled into a pattern of slightly cruel jokes about Hamilton’s age and Parker’s ethnicity, the genuine friendship is pretty close to the surface. Mackenzie makes sure to mirror Toby and Tanner’s interactions in scenes with Hamilton and Parker, ensuring you gain nearly equal sympathy for both pairs. Come the finale, it’s very hard to know who to root for, but it’s a testament to the character work that you desperately want things to be resolved without anyone getting hurt.
When it comes to the heists themselves, Mackenzie aims at veracity, unshowy stylistic choices allowing us a clear-eyed and frightening view of panic from both sides of the gun. Outside of this, he allows himself a few flourishes, with his cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shooting some particularly beautiful scenes capitalising on the wildness of Texas. A semi-drunken playfight silhouetted against the sunset is a standout, as is a sequence in which a rancher has to lead his cattle away from a fire consuming entire fields. Combined with an original Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, this makes Hell or High Water feel like a properly sincere and loving tribute to Texas the likes of which we rarely see.
It’s not perfect, and there are a couple of scenes towards the end that feel a little like filler, artificially delaying the inevitable showdown without really providing adequate reason. Yet the richly drawn world more than makes up for these hiccups; every background character seems to have a story to tell, and the lead quartet are brilliantly acted.
Chris Pine adds a career-best performance to his ever more impressive portfolio, a quietly intense deep dive into the heart of a man who knows he’s done too much wrong to fix himself up. He’s so good here that he pretty much matches Ben Foster, who remains one of the most criminally underused actors in Hollywood. Angry, frenetic, loving, and desperately sad, his Tanner is a fantastic display of his magnetic talents. From his tired dismissal of a gun-toting thug to his calming down of his hysterical brother after a robbery goes awry, he’s impossible to look away from, the highlight of a superb cast in an excellent thriller.