There’s a falseness to Hell or High Water that distracts from the quite potent visceral punch the movie delivers in its last act. The disingenuous vibe the movie gives off comes mostly from writer Taylor Sheridan’s heavily clichéd dialog and obnoxious character dynamics. The way Sheridan handles those attributes left me with the impression that Hell or High Water is his version of a Coen brothers movie, essentially a stripped down No Country for Old Men. But where No Country is full of delicate, nuanced character studies punctuated with nerve-shredding tension and bursts of violence, Hell or High Water eschews the rich character turns for a tired machismo that left me feeling bored.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play West Texas brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, respectively. Toby is desperate to save the family ranch from going into foreclosure, and he is determined to pass the land and the newly discovered oil underneath to his two sons. The straight arrow Toby convinces ex-con Tanner to help him in a series of small-time bank robberies, in order to steal just enough cash to erase the bank’s lien on the ranch and wipe out the back taxes. They can then launder the illicit money through some Oklahoma casinos as gambling winnings, making the source of their suddenly flush pockets untraceable. Toby has seemingly thought of everything, but the one thing he didn’t count on was Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger close to retirement who is intent on catching the desperadoes. Together with his half Native American, half Mexican American partner Alberto (I mention his heritage because it plays a significant part in the movie), Marcus tries to figure out their plan before they can rob another bank.
Hell or High Water is a modern day western, with high-speed car chases standing in for pursuit on horseback and an AR-15 rifle making an appearance in a gun fight. That conceit is the closest the picture gets to being a deconstructionist take on the genre. The dialog throughout the movie is either painfully straightforward or attempting humor that is cringe-inducing. That’s how you get lines like, “Those banks loaned the least they could so they could swipe your mama’s land,” alongside gems like this exchange: “It’s a big bank.” “It’s too big.” “That’s what she said.”
That last bit of conversation exemplifies the singular point of view of Hell or High Water. This is a man’s movie with so much raw macho power that it could never be enough for just the cops and robbers to have fun with guns. The civilians on the periphery want to get in on the action, too. It’s no coincidence the story is set in Texas, an early adopter of concealed carry and the lunacy of logical fallacies like “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The modern day posse of bank patrons that load up in their F-150s to chase down Toby and Tanner after one of the robberies goes south works as naked audience wish fulfillment. As a whole, the movie revels in the scenes of gun play and violence too much for it to be anything else. The only thing that might make a testosterone-filled viewer think twice about getting involved in a standoff like the one in the movie is the prospect of running into someone like the crazed Tanner, a man with nothing to lose.
Since this is a movie for guys, the women are practically nonexistent, and when they do show up, they all fit neatly into predetermined, easily categorized roles. Toby’s ex-wife, Debbie, is the heartless bitch. Elsie, a female Ranger, condescendingly pats Marcus on the head when he won’t give up on catching the bank robbers. Go enjoy your retirement, she insists, we don’t need you anymore. But the movie does need him, and Marcus proves it. The most egregious example of how Hell or High Water uses women as objects is the Casino desk clerk who can’t resist Tanner’s supposedly dashing advances. She’s all smiles when Tanner hits on her, and the outcome of his animal magnetism is a sex scene during which Tanner suavely interjects, “Look at those titties, girl! Good lord!”
How the movie deals with race is also disappointing. Marcus’ relationship with his partner Alberto is representative of the missed opportunity for meaningful social commentary that Hell or High Water tries but fails to make. Throughout the film, Marcus jokingly makes disparaging comments about Alberto’s Native American heritage, like indigenous peoples’ propensity for being drunks. Alberto wonders aloud why Marcus only makes fun of his Indian half at one point. Don’t worry, Marcus tells him, he’ll get to the Mexican half after he exhausts all of his Indian insults. But he’s got quite a few of those, so it will be awhile. The fact that these moments are played for laughs completely undercuts the power in a moment like Alberto’s speech about the long history of the powerful taking land from the powerless. Now it’s banks doing the taking instead of armies, Alberto says.
The saving grace of the muddled message and clichéd dialog of Hell or High Water are the performances. Chris Pine exudes a quiet strength as the out-of-options Toby, who is more relatable than his take on Captain Kirk. Ben Foster is bigger and more explosive as Tanner; it’s the kind of role for which you hire Ben Foster, like his magnetic turn in 3:10 to Yuma. The character is essentially a sociopath, and after years of trouble with the law, his exuberant willingness to help Toby represents his admission that he does these violent things because he likes it. Jeff Bridges is back to riffing on his Rooster Cogburn performance from the Coen Brothers 2010 remake of True Grit. Thankfully, there is a plot turn late in the film that gives Bridges the opportunity to have an understated, yet very powerful moment.
That plot turn, along with the rest of the final half hour of Hell or High Water is unquestionably the strongest thing about the movie. There are genuine moments of suspense throughout the entire climax. That makes it all the more frustrating that I wasn’t able to hook into much during the first two-thirds. To use a phrase one of the characters might utter, Hell or High Water is a movie that don’t know whether it’s a-comin’ or a-goin’.
Why it got 2 stars:
- The premise is solid, and the last act is fairly riveting, but the way the characters speak, and the movie's troubling views on women and race make Hell or High Water a big disappointment.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I didn't realize until after I finished my main review that I never once mentioned David Mackenzie's direction, and that's a huge oversight. His strong visual style is on display from the opening shot. The first bank robbery is made more tense than it otherwise would be by the camera constantly swirling around the action.
- At the risk of beating a dead horse (or dead F-150, since this is a modern day western), the folksy dialog by both the main characters and the colorful small town people caught in the crossfire comes off as incredibly contrived. The dialog in No Country for Old Men feels much more authentic than anything in Hell or High Water.