Of the great movie romances, few are as enduring as the lusty interplay between human beings and the outlaw lifestyle. From Zorro to Scarface to Batman to Bonnie and Clyde, the devilish allure of seeking justice and fulfillment outside of convention and societal rubrics has fascinated audiences since the early days of film, and the idea of the outlaw remains as ripe for rumination and trigger-happy entertainment as ever.
The latest contribution to the ongoing filmic tradition is David Mackenzie’s rollicking Hell or High Water, a crafty life-of-crime tale that retains the hallmarks of the classic ‘70s Western while ultimately sobering them up a bit by acknowledging that old-school, pistol-totin’ bandits aren’t quite cut-out for these times. Modernity has spoiled all the fun: the 2008-09 financial crisis caused millions of desperate Americans, facetiously or not, to fantasize about robbing their local bank, but security cameras and cellphones have made such heisty high jinks a decidedly dicier affair.
Two brave souls (fools, some would call them) willing to roll those proverbial dice are scruffy-faced brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). They’re about to lose their recently-deceased mother’s ranch to Midland Bank, but what the bank doesn’t know is that they’ve recently discovered vast pockets of oil underneath the property, just waiting to be guzzled up for big bucks. To save the precious land, they’ve hatched a plan to rob a series of ghost-town Midland branches in the morning, during their earliest (and slowest) hours of operation.
“The early bird catches the worm!” says volatile ex-con Tanner to his younger brother as they speed away from their first stick-up. They’ve both got big mouths, constantly volleying expletive-laden barbs as they argue about how to handle the bank jobs. Toby is a first-time transgressor and wants to keep the robberies as clean and painless as possible; Tanner’s been a punk all his life and makes rash, violent decisions that thoroughly rattle his more judicious younger brother.
Their frantic, mid-getaway exchanges are snappy and plainspoken, and the entirety of the film’s dialogue sings with from-the-hip wit and snappy delivery. It evokes Mamet, Tarantino, and even Sorkin, only in super slo-mo. The script comes from the pen of Taylor Sheridan, whose work on last year’s Sicario displayed a similar sensibility for deliberateness in rhythm and tone. His characters say what they mean, mean what they say, and more often than not, say things mean.
Pine and Foster (still under-appreciated, after all these years) are savvy actors with screen presence beyond their years, and they’re terrific here. Tanner’s the unhinged grifter, bad-influence archetype we’ve seen countless times before, but Foster is an exceedingly special character actor who, as always, adds so much flavor to the role that it feels singular and fresh. In similar fashion, Pine avoids playing Toby as overly soft and sensitive; he’s a badass, too, only he’s got a couple less moral screws loose.
The leads are only outdone by the cast’s elder statesman, Jeff Bridges, who plays perceptive, veteran Texas Ranger Marcus. He’s three weeks from retirement and is hot on the brothers’ heels, committing his final days on the force to throwing the young crooks behind bars. A filmmaker could simply linger on a close-up of Bridges for minutes on end as he follows the horizon with his signature, world-weary gaze, and it’d be riveting stuff, every time. The veteran actor’s connection with audiences is teflon-strong at this point in his career, and Mackenzie’s fully aware of his power, often taking extended time to simply show Marcus lost in thought, in no hurry to respond to the questions and concerns of his rock-solid partner (Gil Birmingham, a perfect onscreen companion).
Most of the two duo’s conversations happen during downtime, and the film so basks in these moments of respite from the larger plot that it feels like more of a hangout dramedy than a crime thriller. Those are the movie’s two modes of operation. They’re equally entertaining, and Mackenzie mixes and alternates between them effortlessly.
Another thing Mackenzie does extremely well is film cars in motion. The way his camera swoops and spins around the brothers’ car is both balletic and kinetic, even when there’s no one in pursuit. It’s just plain cool to see these handsome young men speeding away in stolen cars, loose bills flying out of the windows as they laugh and playfully smack each other around in a pure state of exhilaration.
The proceedings get progressively sober, with the characters’ dark motivations and subsequent actions skewing the third act’s tone more toward Cormac McCarthy-esque, weighty introspection. That’s not at the sacrifice of entertainment, though; the film ends with an old-fashioned Western shootout that’s deliciously tense and well staged.
There are a bevy of interesting themes in play throughout Hell or High Water, from Native American history to the juxtaposition of Toby and Tanner’s antagonistic bond with the Ranger partners’ chosen-family connection. But the movie’s strongest virtues are rooted in the pure joys of classic, tough-guy cinema: car chases, gun fights, fist fights, and world-class, cowpoke smack talk.