‘Hell or High Water’ is intense modern Western

Ben Foster and Chris Pine are bank robbing brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) with the Texas Rangers on their tail in the western “Hell Or High Water.”
Ben Foster and Chris Pine are bank robbing brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) with the Texas Rangers on their tail in the western “Hell Or High Water.” TNS

In the desolate Texas of “Hell or High Water,” a bank clerk (Dale Dickie) gently sasses the ski-masked robbers with the condescending assessment, “y’all are new at this.” That’s the world created by director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan in this post-recession Western, which plays like a Johnny Cash song come to life. All the adventures and angst of the good bad guys that Cash sang about are on screen, in this tale of men fighting for prosperity in a world that’s no longer made for them.

“Hell or High Water” is a film of parallel pairs – bank robbing brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), and the Texas Rangers on their tail, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Both are odd couples, volleying nuggets of folksy, genial wisecracks back and forth, on an ambling collision course toward violence and blood. But they agree on a common enemy that also happens to be a victim here – Texas Midlands Bank.

Toby has enlisted his fresh-out-of-the-clink brother Tanner for a mission that’s two parts desperation, one part revenge. He brings the motivation and moral compass while Tanner brings his wild, adrenaline-ravaged energy and the gumption to pull off these heists. Foster is electrifying as Tanner, disappearing into the role with a few extra pounds and a pair of wrap-around sunglasses. He’s coiled like a rattler ready to strike, alternating between outbursts of aggressiveness, country-fried charm, and stillness, maintaining a mostly steady hand on his cool.

The brothers stick up banks and launder money in Comanche casinos to pay off the lien on their family ranch, and the Texas Rangers wait patiently to collar their perps. It’s all a part of an ancient cycle, as Alberto explains – his ancestors, Native Americans, had their land stolen from them by the ancestors of the white Texans, whose towns are dying out as banks steal their land from them. “Hell or High Water” captures this culture in its death throes, in the transition from cowboys who ride horses to the ones who drive shiny Ford pickups.

It’s a story of cowboys and Indians and bank robbers and shootouts, hewing closely to the iconography and conventions of the Western, which has traditionally allowed us to grapple with contemporary events through a historical filter. But this Western eschews allegory for direct confrontation with the issues of the day – foreclosure, poverty, crime, gun violence. This Western offers not a filter but a frame through which to see the financial effects on small-town America.

Like many Westerns, women exist at the edges of the story, though their presence looms large. Tanner refers to their spoils as “Debbie money,” child support for Toby’s dour ex-wife and their teenage sons. Toby and Tanner are working through the death of their mother, trying to hold onto her ranch for their progeny. Women boss them, guide them, love them, serve as the figures of home and hearth for which every man is fighting. But this is a film about men, and the state of masculinity in a world that has made providing for a family and lifting yourself out of poverty nearly impossible. The result is a dusty, blood-soaked myth of crime and punishment far from fantasy, a finger planted on the pulse – and the trigger.

‘Hell or High Water’

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey

Director: David Mackenzie

Length: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Rated: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.