Hell or High Water Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges. Directed by David Mackenzie. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Possibly the best scene in the terrific crime drama Hell or High Water involves two of the characters sitting in a restaurant attempting to order a meal. As they track bank-robbing brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) across Texas, Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) stake out a small-town bank where they think the robbers might strike next. They head to a restaurant across the street, where the cantankerous waitress asks, “What don’t you want?,” because the only relevant question is which side dish they’ll decline to have with their steak.
That kind of wry, counterintuitive approach defines this consistently entertaining movie, which mines new humor, depth and eloquence from a very old genre. Essentially a Western set in the present day, Hell or High Water takes place in the dusty, half-dying towns and empty stretches of road in West Texas, where Toby and Tanner rob small amounts of money from a regional chain of banks not so they can get rich, but so they can pay off debts that various bureaucratic institutions have forced them to take on. The script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan is full of flavorful dialogue like that restaurant exchange, and his plotting is air-tight, methodically revealing more details about the Howard brothers’ plan, as Hamilton tracks them with a mix of admiration and incredulity.
Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) digs deeply into the world of struggling, worn-out businesses and working-class people barely making ends meet. Every sign and storefront contributes to the movie’s sense of sweaty desperation, with characters holding onto every little advantage they can find. Mackenzie gets great performances from his cast, too, with Pine both utilizing and undermining his natural pretty-boy charisma, and Foster adding soul to the more volatile and dangerous of the two brothers. Bridges is wonderfully craggy and cranky as the about-to-retire Hamilton, who just can’t let this confounding case go. Hamilton gets two very different final confrontations with the brothers, one a violent, action-filled shootout that recalls the end of Kirk Douglas classic Lonely Are the Brave, the other a tense conversation filled with resentful yet respectful subtext.
Both of those scenes demonstrate the mastery the filmmakers and cast have over these characters and this story, which proceeds inexorably yet surprisingly to its melancholy but strangely hopeful ending. In a bleak landscape where the system is stacked against everyone, a pair of outlaw brothers and a weary lawman do what they can to bring a little sanity to their hardscrabble existence. Watching their small struggles and even smaller triumphs makes for one of the most enjoyable and satisfying moviegoing experiences of the year.