“Hell or High Water” is a thrillingly good movie — a crackerjack drama of crime, fear, and brotherly love set in a sun-roasted, deceptively sleepy West Texas that feels completely exotic for being so authentic. The film opens, as so many underworld sagas have, with a bank robbery: At a Texas Midlands branch in the middle of a flyspeck town, two guys in ski masks wave their guns around and grab the cash from behind the teller windows. One of them, it’s clear, is a wild boy who’s enjoying the robbery a little too much. As they race off in their getaway car, a sporty scuzz-mobile that seems to be advertising the fact that they’re crooks, we think we’re watching a pop genre movie about violent losers who are too reckless for their own good. But “Hell or High Water” settles into something quite different. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers, and in their minds they have damn good reason to be doing what they’re doing. They’re low-rent bandits, but they’re also richly drawn human characters, and every twist and turn of their dive beyond the law is rooted in the real world. “Hell or High Water” merges the excitement of a crime-spree noir with a haunting undertow of family history and destiny. Directed by David Mackenzie, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote “Sicario”), it’s a gripping independent production that, with its fusion of offbeat star power and audacious storytelling, has the potential to be a mainstream hit, and possibly an awards contender.
Chris Pine, with his moody sleek glamour and bright blue bedroom eyes, has struggled to find serious dramatic roles that fit him as snugly as Captain Kirk, and this one is undoubtedly his breakthrough. As Toby, who’s divorced with two kids he hasn’t seen for a year, Pine is playing a sexy bad boy with some mileage on him, and he’s quietly mesmerizing. Toby knows how to spring into action, but his downbeat look expresses the pain of every mistake he’s ever made. Ben Foster, wearing a biker ‘stache and a spooked stare that dares you to stare back, makes Tanner an even badder boy, a thief who has spent years in prison and doesn’t have the patience — or faith — to go straight. He’s a sociopathic screwup who knows he’s a screwup (which sort of redeems him).
As it turns out, the robberies are all Toby’s idea, and he has planned out their logistics with great cunning. The two will hit a series of Texas Midland branches, always early in the morning, restricting themselves to unmarked bills lifted from the register. More clever: They’ve amassed a handful of cars, and after each robbery they drive the getaway vehicle into a pit already dug in the back of the family ranch, and bury it. (They clean the cash at a casino.) The reason Toby has thought this all out with such awesome ingenuity is that he’s desperately motivated. The local bank — yes, Texas Midlands — is about to foreclose on that ranch, and to pay off the debt and save the property, the brothers need money they don’t have. The film’s implication is that in the new, corporate-driven, triumph-of-finance-culture America, the bank just wants to gobble up property. It’s not there to help — it’s there to steal, albeit legally. And in this case, there’s a lot to take: Toby has found oil on the land. To hold onto it is his way of protecting the future of the children he hasn’t been there for.
It’s no trick for a movie to win us over to the side of robbers, or even killers. But in “Hell or High Water,” there’s a powerful ambiguity at work in our connection to the brothers’ thievery. The two grew up in poverty, and Toby’s justification for becoming a violent criminal is that he needs to go that far to alter the financial karma of his family. He and Tanner come off as amoral and honorable at the same time, and the film weighs their actions against a spectre of vanishing prosperity. With jobs, and futures, disappearing, are these two stealing other people’s money? Or are they just trying to hold on to what’s theirs? Maybe both. “Hell or High Water” has an understanding of what drives ordinary people to commit crime that links it to the lyrical hunger and despair of Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.”
To heighten the issue, and also to hot-wire the story for suspense, there’s a third major character, and he’s a real crowd-pleaser. Jeff Bridges, talking in a deep-voiced, slow-cooked drawl that makes him sound like he does nothing but chew tobacco leaves, shows up as Marcus, an aging Texas Ranger who’s the smartest guy in any room he’s in, and knows it, but will never let you see it. Bridges, looking like an old catfish, changes his entire aspect, slowing himself way down (at times, he suggests a more wry Kris Kristofferson), adopting the kind of sleepy Texas manners that make even the nastiest insults come off as polite. He’s deadpan, yet he gives every line a twinkle. Marcus is the film’s Columbo/Javert character, the sort of detective who succeeds because he knows how to think just like the criminals he’s chasing. When Tanner upsets the brothers’ careful planning by staging an impromptu heist of his own, Marcus figures all that out, and there’s a terrific, funny scene in which he and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) — who’s on the receiving end of most of those insults — sit at a sidewalk bar across from a Midlands branch, just waiting for the robbers to show up. Marcus, we’re told, is three weeks away from retirement, and Bridges makes you see why he’s dreading it: He invests Marcus’ understanding of crime with a deep cynical joy.
Mackenzie, the Glasgow-based director of “Starred Up,” takes to the grittiness and sprawl of West Texas as if born to it, and Sheridan’s script is full of lines that snap (“Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house!” says Marcus, spying a bank manager he wants to question). It also has a masterly design. Marcus, with some justification, thinks of himself as a cowboy, a lawman hooked to an ancient code, but “Hell or High Water” serves up a vision of West Texas in which everyone believes they’re a cowboy. Toby and Tanner swagger like John Wayne’s punk grandsons, lunging for a freedom that civilization, in their eyes, wants to snuff. And every bystander around them lusts for that same freedom; it’s all about the guns they’re carrying. Each of them is looking to grab one of those guns in order to leap to someone’s rescue (an entire state of amateur deputies!), and the film shows us what the weapons mean — that they’re signifiers of power, self, dignity. “Hell or High Water” is the rare movie that invites even liberals to grasp the spirit of America gun culture from the inside out.
Toby and Tanner are on a collision course – with the law, with each other — but “Hell or High Water” doesn’t go where you expect. Pine and Foster genuinely convince you they’re brothers, with a punchy affectionate conflicted bond that reaches all the way back. At times, they could be a cracker-barrel version of the love-hate siblings portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” “Hell or High Water” channels the uncut adrenaline of crime, but it’s also a moral drama that takes the measure of each destabilizing action it shows us. The movie is on the right side of things, even when it barely knows where that is.