Texas brothers - Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. Vengeance seems to be theirs, until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide.
Hell or High Water makes its world known in a single shot without saying a word. The camera pans around the parking lot of a bank in West Texas. The town is devoid of most businesses and few cars can be seen in the morning hours. Some graffiti on the wall contains a rant about soldiers not being able to find jobs after coming home. One car arrives early, the occupants waiting for the bank to open with ski-masks and guns. Times are tough and the bank is about to be robbed.
But the two robbing the bank are no mere thieves. They are brothers in crime that have thought through their actions of swiping cash to save a farm. Chris Pine plays the brains of the operation as Toby Howard, a divorced farmer desperately trying to secure a future for his ungrateful children. Ben Foster is the more seasoned thief Tanner Howard, acting more recklessly and favoring thrills over calculated moves. They appear as a mismatched couple, but they’re brought together easily by their sense of family loyalty to avoid the more minute mistakes an amatuer bank robber might make. They’re smart enough to know when to dump a car, where to dump it, which banks to rob from, which time to rob them and how to go about making sure the money is clean.
Despite their smarts, they’re not dealing with average citizens in the region of west Texas. Having grown bitter in a climate of banks shutting down their farms and businesses, they don’t hesitate to open fire on a bank robber. They’re not afraid to shoot off their mouths either as any politically incorrect statement or declaration of violence slips out from their frustrated psyche. One citizen encounters the robbers and questions why they’re robbing banks when they’re not Mexican. Another confesses to law enforcement that if he finds the robbers, he’ll hang them from a tree, reasoning that he’ll get away with it if the cops can’t find the tree.
Upon hearing this statement, old-time Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) simply smiles with his mustache and remarks, “I love West Texas.” He’s seasoned enough at this job to not only have a nose tracking criminals, but enjoy the hunt with his grimacing partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The two have an odd relationship in how Marcus keeps slinging indian slurs at Alberto, hoping he’ll return the favor to get a banter going. There’s a genuine sincerity behind every racial jab and jockular ribbing, brilliantly sold by Bridges who doesn’t phone in what could have been a breezily-fitting role. You probably already know he’s a great actor for such a character, but I’ll bet you never knew he was this great. For a man who has grown quite comfortable in the movies with a mustache and a cowboy hat, this is easily one of his best performances.
The story of Hell or High Water is thought out with a great deal of intricacy in how it stages the robberies and paints the robbers as anything but typical. Many expected cliches of points where the scheme could go wrong are narrowly avoided, resulting in a showdown with more surprises than I expected. For two brothers that are polar opposite, they have their heads firmly in check, even when venturing into a casino to change out their money. A lesser movie might have them gamble it all away or have it stolen by an eager hooker. These traps are presented and wisely sideswiped. I also found myself incredibly engrossed in Marcus’ arc, despite him being the old trope of a cop just a few days from retirement.
But what’s most appealing about the movie by far are the elements that appear more as set dressing. The environment of West Texas becomes a character with sweeping dusty plains, rundown towns and plenty of billboards for banks. Not to be outdone, however, are the citizens of West Texas that manage to steal just about every scene. One particular scene worth noting takes place in the diner. Marcus and Alberto settle in for lunch, only to be greeted by the most crabby old waitress ever seen on film. She doesn’t ask you what you want; she asks what you don’t want. What she doesn’t have is fish, a request she sourly turned down after some New Yorker came in to order just that. I’m probably never going to order fish if I go to Texas for fear that this lately will materialize at the table.
Hell or High Water takes a simple story of robbing banks and turns into one of the most complex, thoughtful and charismatic neo-westerns of the decade. Every scene is brimming with Texas charm, be they filled with top-rate actors, impressive supporting characters or just gorgeous landscapes. It’s the type of picture that begs a second viewing, a closer examination and heaps of praise for making a heist picture more deep than it has any right to be.