A TIMELY THRILLER WITH REAL HUMAN AND POLITICAL STAKES
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R; Grade: A
Taylor Sheridan scratched his way through the film industry as an actor with roles in host of television shows like NYPD Blue and the CSI franchises before landing longer stints on Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy, but he’s on track to make a real name for himself as a feature film screenwriter. Last year, he laid down the intricate plot for “Sicario” and now he’s back with another powerhouse crime drama, David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water.”
The narrative starts off like a classic Texas outlaw tale, focusing on the exploits of Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster). Toby’s the more conventionally reliable of the two, a struggling divorced father with a pair of sons. The soggy specter of debt drenches his every pore, and we learn quickly that Toby’s got a ticking time bomb of back taxes and interest about ready to explode and claim everything he holds dear. Tanner’s the reckless one, a recently sprung ex-con, itchy and hell-bent on scratching the already raw flesh off his open-wound of a life.
The brothers have a plan, staging early morning bank heists, a series of small-time strikes with the intention of raising the cash they need to settle their debts without hurting anybody along the way. Toby supplies the cunning and more than enough sense to cover their tracks, while Tanner is all about the in the moment execution and the willingness to take the necessary action when the plans go awry.
That, in and of itself, is quite a set-up, but Sheridan doesn’t stop there. He sets up a parallel duo, equally as compelling, to engage audiences. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is a Texas Ranger counting down his final days on the job. He’s an expansive figure, a loveable big talking know-it-all with just enough experience to back up most of his tall tales. Hamilton’s a good old boy who knows how to poke fun at our modern notions of what that label means.
Hamilton’s partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is 10-15 years younger, but a strong silent type, blessed (or some would say cursed) to be more diverse in background (part Native-American and Hispanic) and with more modern sensibilities. The curse here is totally defined by having to put up with the more abrasive tendencies of Hamilton.
“Hell or High Water” alternates between these two pairs, highlighting the humanity of both the crooks and the cops on their trails. What also emerges in these juxtapositions is a further defining of the sociopolitical landscape of the story. You can talk about people hurting because of economic downturns and the lack of real boosts from governmental stimulus packages, but Sheridan lays it out plainly before us, in every interaction. There are bank tellers and waitresses who don’t feel the need to stick their necks out to catch the brothers because they have a more than philosophical interest in seeing someone get over on the system. A tip can cost you a tip, if you know what I mean.
And for all the care in the scripting of this film, it all boils down to performance dyads. Pine, working against conventional casting, is no shining white knight of a hero. This isn’t him in Captain Kirk or Jack Ryan mode; Toby is cut from a different cloth. Rather than adhering to the Robin Hood ideal, his Western model has a degree of righteousness in him, but he’s driven to fight for his family, and he’s able to coax his far more outlaw-minded brother down this path with him. We believe in these two, not only as stick-up artists, but also as two boys at heart still playacting roles from long ago.
The dynamic between Bridges and Birmingham is even more powerful because they are brothers of a completely different sort, having come together to protect the public and each other. We see the rough and rude humor in their exchanges, and yet we know it is built on a solid foundation of respect and love, where each man would die for the other.
As these two pairings rush headlong towards a reckoning, “Hell or High Water” rises in our estimation, transforming into a beautifully stripped-down version of the epic machismo captured in Michael Mann’s crime thriller “Heat.” The genius here, though, is in the efforts of Sheridan and Mackenzie to root such classic Western archetypes in a thoroughly modern landscape.