Hell or High Water ✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
A forlorn present-day slice-of-lifer, “Hell or High Water” might have drifted in from another time, when filmmakers were more interested in social injustice, mordant humor and seriously alienated types who occupy both foreground and periphery. “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands” come to mind, so too do the Coens’ “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” But this film, directed by the talented Scot David Mackenzie, is more desultory, episodic, only marginally moored to plot.
As he did on his breakthrough film, the father-son prison saga “Starred Up,” Mackenzie again concentrates on character nuance as he strings together illustrative vignettes.
Jeff Bridges receives top billing as a wily, argumentative Texas Ranger nearing retirement, but the real stars are Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank robber brothers in a Dust Bowl-depressed West Texas, and Taylor Sheridan, who penned the evocative throwback script. Last year Sheridan won plaudits for “Sicario,” an even grimmer look at the symbiotic relationship between U.S. border authorities and a Mexican cartel.
Sheridan’s landscape this time is peopled by shady loan officers, surly or lovelorn waitresses, pistol-packin’ onlookers who never look for long. When a firefight breaks out, half the town is soon blasting away with canon-size revolvers.
Tanner Howard (Foster), just out of prison, and younger brother Toby (Pine), estranged from wife and son, are a latter-day Clyde and Buck Barrow, initially inept serial robbers who pick off as many as three Midlands Banks a day. They’re not interested in the vault and its easily traceable notes, only in the small bills handled by tellers. Their goal: steal enough to pay off the mortgage and liens on their dead mother’s ranch, where oil has been discovered.
Like the movie overall, the brothers barely crack a smile; they’re pessimistic about their chances for success.
“Never met anybody who got away with anything,” owns up Tanner when asked about their odds.
Later, someone notes, “The days of robbing banks and living to spend the money are long gone.” The Peckinpah of “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway,” an obvious influence, couldn’t have put it more succinctly.
Sniffing after the brothers, like a pair of bored bloodhounds, are Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose Native American-Hispanic parentage makes him an easy target for his partner’s incessant ribbing.
Bridges is obviously doing a world-weary Tommy Lee Jones. He rolls and chews his tongue a lot and proudly displays his ample paunch. It’s a decent, if at times affected, performance that doesn’t come as easily for the actor as his boozy misfits in “Crazy Heart” and “True Grit.”
Pine, who can now also be seen as a lackluster Captain Kirk in “Star Trek Beyond,” gives his most interesting performance to date as the kid brother who dreamed up the scheme to beat corrupt loan officers at their own game. Foster (“Lone Survivor”) fares even better as the trigger-happy older brother whose reckless bravado makes a happy ending seem more and more unlikely.
“Hell or High Water” is finally a bit too scattered and insouciant to rank with “No Country for Old Men.” Think of it as a modern-day Western-cum-crime saga performed in a minor key. Its garrulous style and tumbleweed authenticity, I’m guessing, will stay with the viewer well after its melodramatic plot has faded from memory.
HELL OR HIGH WATER ✮✮✮ With Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham. Directed by David Mackenzie; scripted by Taylor Sheridan. 102 min. Rated R (for the no-no triumvirate — profanity, sex, violence)