Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Ben Foster and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby Howard.

I wouldn’t say there’s been a dearth of good crime films lately; we haven’t had a renaissance, but we have gotten some good ones. It’s not a genre that is considered a genre—crime can fit into horror (Don’t Breathe), it can be a thriller (Gone Girl), or it can be a drama (At Close Range). But, Hell or High Water is one of the first to tackle the recession hitting the working class. The adaptation of George V. Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade (aka Killing Them Softly) touched on it, but kept its characters firmly in the underworld. This one, written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie, the British director of the excellent prison film Starred Up, pulls few punches when it comes to giving its antiheroes a motive.

They live in west Texas, where every other billboard advertises “Debt Relief?” and easy credit and mortgage refinancing, weathered ranches have for sale signs, and cowpokes herding cattle away from a brush fire commiserate, “No wonder my damn kids won’t do this!”

The film wastes no time before kicking off—we meet the Howard brothers, Toby (an unrecognizable and surprisingly intense Chris Pine) and Tanner (played by the reliably edgy Ben Foster), as they pull down ski masks and ambush a bank teller as she opens a small regional office. She can’t open the safe, but the manager can, so Tanner cracks him in the face with his revolver and they are on their way, blasting through the back streets in a stolen junker Camaro.

The tension between them is obvious from the start; Toby asks Tanner why he had to hit the guy. I was concerned that Toby would be the “good guy bank robber,” and as the story unfolds, we learn that he is no hardened criminal, but thankfully he also has no delusions about what he is doing. He just doesn’t want anyone killed. Tanner, on the other hand…

They hit two banks in one morning, and for a moment there’s a frenetic pace that makes the film seem like it might be a “blaze of glory” tale—but it isn’t, and there’s a lot more to it than is spoken. Mackenzie may be from ‘cross the pond, but he imbues Texas with a true and unjudging American spirit that will make this film appeal to both sides of the political divide. If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that people who worked hard all their lives are finding themselves bled dry by faceless businesses in the financial and health care sectors, with reverse mortgages and medical bills that insurance won’t pay.

And, we soon learn that’s the root of the robbery spree. Tanner and Toby bury the stolen Chevy with a backhoe and sadly explore their abandoned familial ranch house and the empty hospital bed in their mother’s bedroom.

Tanner is the bad boy who killed an abusive father and spent ten years in prison for aggravated assault, with a cell mate who told him all he knew about robbing small-town banks. Toby is more mysterious—divorced with two sons who won’t see him, child support bills he can’t pay, no jobs in sight. He’s the brains of the operation, and Tanner is a powderkeg ready to blow. “How’d you stay out of prison for a year?” he asks him, and we wonder ourselves.

Yet, he’s not a caricature. When they launder the cash at a casino, he calls a Comanche gambler chief, but not to start a fight. He feels a kinship that is not there. “You know what Comanche means?” the man asks him. “Enemy. Towards all.” “Then that makes me Comanche.”

Their mission is never spoken, but we learn as they go through the plan. The family ranch had a reverse mortgage to pay mother’s medical bills, and Texas Midland Bank is set to foreclose. They’re robbing only those banks to pay off what’s owed, so Toby’s sons will escape the family poverty “that’s inherited like a disease. A sickness.” 

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Texas Ranger Marcus and his partner Alberto.

Jeff Bridges is as close as we get to a trope—Texas Ranger Marcus, the lawman on the verge of retirement. I love Jeff Bridges, but his marble-mouth voice from True Grit is getting old. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham, Twilight and The Lone Ranger) plays the long-suffering sidekick, absorbing Marcus’s ethnic jokes and teasing. That gets old, too. But, Alberto gets the best line of the film, reminding us that people's land has been stolen since we lived in caves. “This was my people’s land, far as the eye could see, a hundred fifty years ago. Then these people’s great-grandparents took it. Now it’s being taken from them.” 

The film does not follow the expected three part structure; it goes where the story requires, as Marcus and Alberto hunt down the robbers who seem too smart to be tweakers or small time criminals who graduated to it. Their final confrontation is inevitably tragic, but this is no ‘30s gangster film that must instruct us that crime does not pay. It may always come with dire consequences to those around you, but the story is shackled to no morality. And, while the criminals run up against Texans carrying guns, they are no match for Tanner, who has long ago decided he will be Enemy to All. The action rings true and the gunplay gets as ugly as it does in real life. 

Jeff Bridges embodies his Ranger character best once the cow pies hit the fan, and I could imagine him playing Hackberry Holland in an adaptation of the James Lee Burke novels, or a role similar. But in the end, it’s the small touches Sheridan and Mackenzie put in that give this film a chance to be an enduring classic. Like Katy Mixon’s sassy waitress just barely paying her mortgage; another waitress at a T-Bone steakhouse who asks the lawmen their order in an unforgettable scene that rivals Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces with the tables turned. 

This is one that lives up to the hype. Not a family film, but one you can see with your older parents, that friend with opposite political views—whatever they may be—and see a picture of America that’s not often on the news, and enjoy a story together.

 


Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.

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