“Hell or High Water” is the movie that a lot of people say they’ve been waiting for this summer: the answer to the sequeled-out, stuck-in-a-rut, been-there, seen-those-awesome-FX, megaplex-formula blues. This one, despite some familiar elements (it’s about bank robbers, and one of the characters is a shrewd and wily detective), isn’t something you’ve seen before. It’s an original: bold and sharp, enthralling and true, a movie loaded with action that’s never just an “action movie,” full of hairpin twists and turns that are as organic as they are exciting.
The picture has a pair of performances at its center that are inspired enough to haunt you: Chris Pine and Ben Foster as good/bad brothers who team up to rob a series of small-town bank branches in West Texas, but with a motive so down-to-earth and compelling that the audience whispers to itself, “If I were in their shoes, would I do the same thing?” The fact that we’re encouraged to honestly ask that question lends everything that happens in “Hell or High Water” a different kind of urgency than what we’re used to. The film crackles with the intensity of fates that don’t feel very far removed from our own.
All of which makes “Hell or High Water” a contemporary version of that sacred exotic thing: a “1970s movie.” When we talk about the great movies of the ’70s, the kind that people say they wish they could see more of today, a handful of classic titles always spring to mind. It’s worth remembering, though, that in the years from 1970-75, what we think of as the New Hollywood wasn’t just defined by “M*A*S*H,” “The Godfather,” “American Graffiti,” “The French Connection,” “Cabaret,” “Mean Streets,” “Chinatown,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and a handful of other headline masterpieces. There were also a great many movies that were rough-hewn and audacious and vital and existed more along the outlaw fringes — like “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” or “Panic in Needle Park” or “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.” Movies that audiences had to discover.
The way into movies like that — the only way — is our intense connection to the characters, and that’s how “Hell or High Water” works. Early on, when Pine and Foster ride up to a bank branch in their crime-spree jalopy at 8:00 a.m., wearing ski masks, and terrorize the first two employees into the bank, and get away by zooming through dusty streets as cops with wailing sirens speed off in the other direction, we can feel our pulses quickening (always a good thing), and we think we’re watching a film about wild-boy criminals. One of them, Foster’s Tanner, does walk on the wild side — he’s an ex-con sociopath with a feral gleam, who views crime as a kick. But he doesn’t represent the film’s point of view.
That’s why “Hell or High Water,” charged and suspenseful as it is, isn’t a thriller. Its vision is aligned with Pine’s Toby, who has planned out this series of crimes, even though — intriguingly — he is not a criminal. He’s a moody screw-up with valiant instincts, and he has about one week to scrape together 50 grand to pay off the mortgage on his family’s ranch. If he misses the deadline, they’ll lose the property. What he and Tanner know, and no else does, is that oil has been discovered on the land. (Toby has an ex-wife and two sons, and this is going to be their ticket out of financial desperation.)
When you bust into a bank and shout obscenities and wave guns around, that’s a pretty out-there thing to do (it’s a thing that people do in the movies), but Toby and Tanner, in the midst of all that “Get your f—in’ face down on the floor!” bravura, only steal small bills out of the front registers, so the money can’t be traced. The idea, at least in Toby’s mind, is that the only victim of these crimes is going to be the bank. They’re not going to hurt anyone physically, and they’re not going to rip off individuals. Yes, it’s armed robbery, but the movie says, quite compellingly, “Admit it, if you felt like you had nothing and were doing this as the only possible way to secure your family’s future, the plan might start to seem…compelling.” That’s the way movies work: They cut through the conventional morality most of us live with every day to tap into our most dangerous dreams. Movies like this are reality-based fantasies.
The beauty of Chris Pine’s simmering, implosive, tinged-with-desperation performance is that he becomes a representative of all of our ambivalence. He communicates a desire to get that money coupled with a quiet, foreboding awareness that in a better world, this isn’t the way he would be doing it. Pine, in the “Star Trek” films, has always led with his snarky swagger (it’s a compliment, in my book, to say that he genuinely does seem like a chip off the old Shatner mystique), but away from that blockbuster zone, in dramas like “People Like Us” and “Z for Zachariah,” he has been a more uncertain presence. Here, for the first time, he’s in full command as both movie star and actor.
It helps — as it did Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — that his pin-up looks are shrouded in a droopy mustache and too many days of not shaving. He seems like a real-deal s—kicker, the kind of small-town hellion who lives in dive bars and diners and casinos, getting by on his looks and charm (tellingly, the film doesn’t spend one moment explaining his divorce, because it doesn’t have to — the answer is all in Pine’s presence). But Pine also does one of the trickiest things an actor can do, going right back to early Brando: He communicates a lifetime of quiet pain, the kind that slashes away at you from deep down, without ever enunciating it. Ben Foster, who has always been great, makes Tanner a pinpoint scoundrel, destined for no good (except that he dislikes himself so much that he’s willing to go right off a cliff in terms of what he’ll sacrifice), but the news here is Pine, who gives a fantastic performance.
The reason “Hell or High Water” is the very 2016 version of a 1970s movie is that even though it transcends being a genre film, it respects how much audiences today crave genre elements. The tersely witty and layered script, by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), is full of lines to savor, and the British director David Mackenzie stages it in a way that’s amazingly precise, yet that breathes with an understanding of how these men’s lives emerge right out of the expansiveness of the landscape. The movie, despite all the Stetsons in it, isn’t a Western, but it captures how the cowboy mentality is alive and kicking — in Toby and Tanner’s choices, in every civilian we see who carries a gun. (They all do.) The plotting of the crimes is immensely clever and satisfying on that amoral level that crime movies have always operated on, and Jeff Bridges’ performance as Marcus, the aging Texas Ranger who can just about sniff out what these boys are up to because he’s got the same animal instinct, is a testament to what an actor like Bridges can do when you give him dialogue that’s this coiled with cynical delight. Bridges’ closing gesture is sublime, a cocked-index-finger-in-the-air goodbye that, in the language of West Texan, speaks volumes.
What all of this adds up to is that “Hell or High Water” is a crackerjack piece of entertainment. It reaches back to the primal art-laced-with-kicks design of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which also put us on the side of bank robbers whose desperate panache made their spree seem somehow justified, until of course it didn’t. (They also had a crusty Texas Ranger on their tail.) Yet “Hell or High Water” also connects up to the most downbeat undercurrents of life in America today. That’s what gives the movie its ’70s flavor. It’s about poverty and insecurity, the gnaw of financial desperation, and the feeling that there’s no way out of it. Is that entertainment…or, to use another word I recoil from, is it “depressing”? (“Depressing” is a marketing-brand concept too. A negative one. It’s Hollywood’s view of the anti-blockbuster.) The appearance of “Hell or High Water” on the movie landscape in the last half of summer casts one thing into high relief: If people want to see movies like the kind they made back in the ’70s, then they have to be willing to see movies that reflect their lives, and to realize that those movies — just like our fantasy-fueled blockbusters — can be great escapes too.