Texas is as much a riveting character in the fascinating crime drama Hell or High Water as the brothers turned bank robbers at its heart or the laconic lawman who coolly follows them across the sun-hardened landscape like a hunter on the trail of his next kill.
That sense of place is not totally a shock considering that Sons of Anarchy actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan hails from Bosque County or that he considers Hell or High Water — originally called Comancheria — the second installment in his trilogy about life in the contemporary Western frontier. His first was one of last year’s best films, the drug-cartel thriller Sicario, where the physical and emotional borders between U.S. and Mexico, law and lawlessness evaporate in the smothering desert heat.
At first, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and especially his anarchic, jailbird older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) seem like just two goofballs on a lark, robbing small banks all across their native West Texas because they can. But it becomes clear that there is a twisted method to their madness and, as it slowly dawns on soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a reason for their actions.
Maybe they’re not such bad guys, after all.
There are similarities here to the 2007 film No Country for Old Men (right down to the fact that, while both are set in Texas, they were actually mostly filmed in New Mexico for financial reasons —though “we shot as close to Texas as they’d let us,” Sheridan told Texas Monthly).
But there are distinctions as well. Dry, dark humor constantly courses through Hell or High Water and it’s evident in both the fraternal relationship between straight-laced Toby and the more freewheeling Tanner as well as in that of the workplace brotherhood between older white Marcus and his younger half-Indian/half-Mexican deputy Alberto Parker (San Antonio actor Gil Birmingham), whose differences and bickering conceal a deeply held respect.
It also pops up in interactions with other characters in what otherwise could have been just a bleak look at working-class lives left high and dry by the collapse in oil prices as boom times rusted into bust. Times are tough and it’s no accident that the highways sport billboards advertising easy money and payday lenders. (Sheridan plays a cowboy who has seen better days.)
The charge could be made that Hell or High Water, directed by Englishman David Mackenzie (who made the powerful British prison drama Starred Up three years ago), just reinforces Texas stereotypes. From the casual racism to the cranky waitresses, “sophisticated” is not an adjective that applies to anyone here.
Portrayed as a wide-open expanse of one-stoplight towns, this Texas has no bright lights except the stars at night and, as for big cities, Fort Worth is only mentioned once in passing and the only time Dallas comes up is in reference to “thugs” coming from there.
But this portrait is sketched by someone who knows this place, its people and its politics.
There are three scenes involving armed citizenry that will no doubt spark conversations, though Sheridan, who told Texas Monthly he grew up with guns, also said, “If you can tell my political viewpoint from the film, then I’m doing a disservice to the viewer. I don’t want to make it obvious what the movie is saying.”
It’s the characters though who make Hell or High Water compelling. It may be a heist movie but it’s not a generic action movie. The emphasis is less on the gunplay — though there is plenty of that — than on the men pulling the trigger.
While Pine, best known as jut-jawed Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, might be dismissed in some circles as just blockbuster fodder, he often takes roles in small films — like last year’s underrated Z for Zachariah — that prove he’s more than a pretty face. He holds his own here against the always reliable Foster and Bridges (for whom this ranks with The Big Lebowski and Crazy Heart as one of his best roles).
It all makes for a movie, coming at summer’s end when everyone is woozy from CGI overload, where the only special effects are in the acting and storytelling. It also whets the appetite for the third film in Sheridan’s trilogy, Wind River, due in 2017, with which he’s also making his directing debut.
But, for right now, we have Hell or High Water, one of the best films of the year.
Exclusive: AMC NorthPark, Dallas; Angelika Dallas; Cinemark West Plano; opens Aug. 19 at Hulen Movie Tavern, Fort Worth; AMC The Parks at Arlington; AMC Stonebriar, Frisco; AMC Firewheel, Garland; AMC Mesquite; Cinemark Legacy, Plano
Hell or High Water
☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Rated: R (strong violence, language throughout, brief sexuality)
Running time: 102 min.