“Hell or High Water” is a modern western, a story about cops and robbers, set in dusty West Texas, featuring bank robberies and shoot outs and Mexican stand offs, and the “updated setting coupled with classic motifs” gambit often pays off in artistic endeavors, this being one of those times. But additionally, this movie fits another genre, one that sprang from the murky mess of the 2007-2008 housing market crash which catapulted the world into a global recession and saw the concept of The American Dream finally popped and deflated, and that’s the genre in which honest and good people find their lives on the edge of complete ruin thanks to believing in a system that failed them, with the ultimate “bad guys” being banks or bankers or anyone callous enough to be rich and openly uncaring during a time of great strife for many other people, you know, folks inflicted with “Scrooge McDuckitis.”
In “Hell or High Water,” Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is the kind of anti-hero seen in these types of movies, the ones that explore how the American Dream turned into a Waking Nightmare. When we meet Toby, he has already crossed that line, having decided to stage a series of small bank robberies in order to raise enough money to save their family farm from mortgage foreclosure. As if that’s not enough motivation, Tony also has children with his now-divorced wife and he’s determined not to let them continue down the path of poverty that afflicted his family for generations. Toby wants to secure his home and a future for his family. He’s a good dude. That’s what we are supposed to notice when we see him walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and demand money from the frightened tellers.
Helping him do this is his ex-convict brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who has a knack for violence and relishes the opportunity to break the law and inflict some harm, so his actions and behaviors just reinforce how truly great and noble Toby is, because at least HE didn’t turn out to be a total psychopath like his brother there. And while Tanner and Toby rob some banks, they get chased down by a Texas Ranger (on the verge of retirement, obviously) who is also racist and annoying but still kinda smart. This guy is also played by Jeff Bridges which means he talks like he has a mouth full of marbles. What’s up with that? Jeff Bridges used to speak like a normal guy. Now every movie he’s doing some terrible version of Foghorn Leghorn. Anyway.
So the movie is a western and also a bit of a cat and mouse game, as the brothers try to raise enough money in time to make a hard deadline and also before they get caught, and of course the more they go out there and rob, the more heat they bring on themselves, and the more opportunities they have to screw something up and end up injured, killed or behind bars. As a crime film “Hell or High Water” is quite effective in its portrayal of both sides of the law racing against each other, with their own reasons and motivations, trying to achieve their goals, which would then result in the other group NOT achieving theirs. And since the audience (theoretically) understands both sides, it should be a difficult choice as to whom they should root for and hope to see succeed.
One of the main reasons “Hell or High Water” works is because it is kept pretty simple. There aren’t any tangents of side stories, we don’t end up learning more than we need to, everything is done in service of the story and it keeps the movie moving. The characters are kind of thinly sketched but each actor involved makes the most of what has been provided, with Foster and Pine making for a good brotherly duo. While the simplicity helps the movie feel energized and entertaining, it also makes the whole thing feel just a little slight, especially with the characters being kind of underdeveloped. And without getting into any details, the movie does end at a time when it felt like there could have been a whole act, providing a big sense of closure and finality to the story, but that final act never comes and the movie kind of ends. And while the ending is satisfactory enough, it does feel like movie is really the skeleton of something that could have been deeper and more profound.
Still, it makes for an entertaining movie, with good performances, solid direction, good music, a great sense of place and location, with these small West Texas towns and their impoverished neighborhoods looming large in this story about what happens to an honest and hard working American who finally woke up and decided to do something about his family’s chains of poverty, even if that means working outside of the law. You can only sell people horseshit for so long before something finally grows out of all that manure.