Most Westerns made in the last 50 years, whether set in the past or the present, have been at least partially about how the West has changed from how it was in the Westerns made in the previous 50 years. “Hell or High Water” is no exception. Set in a present-day West Texas where citizens still boast of their fondness for frontier justice (that is, vigilantism) and readily form posses to pursue outlaws (in SUVs instead of on horseback), the film is a crackling example of the New Western, mixing familiar archetypes into an entertaining genre exercise.
Directed by David Mackenzie (“Mister Foe,” “Starred Up”) from a screenplay by “Sicario” writer Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” gives some good actors an opportunity to play to their strengths. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers committing a series of small-time bank robberies; Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton, a grizzled Ranger nearing the age of mandatory retirement who doggedly tracks them. You get a sense of the brothers’ temperaments after their first robbery, during which Tanner pistol-whipped the bank manager:
TOBY: Did you have to do that?
TANNER: [whoops] [End of conversation.]
Tanner (Foster) is a lifelong criminal with erratic behavior, the black sheep of the family. Toby (Pine) is the good son, a law-abiding man who’s been forced into these desperate acts by a sense of duty. Like Butch and Sundance before them, the Howard brothers’ real enemies are the very banks they’re robbing. This land was stolen from the Indians by the white man; now it’s being stolen from the white man by the banks. In this barren, depressed part of the country (no country for old men, to be sure), there’s little local sympathy for financial institutions.
That includes Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who identifies one bank’s manager with, “You look like a man who could foreclose on a house.” But Marcus, a folksy version of a Tommy Lee Jones character (“You got bopped on the schnozzola!” he says cheerily to a victim), is a dedicated law-and-order man, ably assisted by Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose ethnicity — half-Comanche, half-Mexican — is a never-ending source of jokes from Marcus. Alberto clearly doesn’t have much patience left for the slurs, but it’s just as clear that Marcus means them to be affectionate and playful. He’s a flawed old man, and the film eventually finds great poignance in this.
Pine and Foster have a believable fraternal chemistry, and both actors give performances that are more emotionally complex than many Westerns have. That’s especially significant coming from Foster, playing a man who easily could have been a two-dimensional psycho but instead shows the regrets of a life misspent. Mackenzie moves the story along at a good pace, balancing tight action with effective (often humorous) dialogue, occasionally using sudden violence to remind us that a story of cops and robbers isn’t all fun and games. The West has different now than it was in the frontier days, but some things never change.
B+ (1 hr., 42 min.; )