Hell or High Water

Making them like they used to

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Oh, they do not make heartland crime dramas like they did back in the ’70s—smart, ornery, low of budget and high of attitude. Steeped in seedy characters and lousy luck. Above all lacking in the least amount of body fat, moral or cinematic.

Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Badlands. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Except they just did. It’s called Hell or High Water and it is all sinew.

It would be easy to overhype the thing. Director David Mackenzie—he made the hellacious British prison film Starred Up in 2014—and writer Taylor Sheridan keep their focus low to the ground. It’s just a lean little saga of two bank-robbing brothers and the aging hound dog of a lawman on their tail.

But good filmmakers know how to let their setting do much of the talking. If Hell or High Water had been made in the 1930s, the Depression would have informed every frame. In the 1970s, it would have been the recession and our “national malaise.” Because we’re in the early 2010s, too many lives have been gutted to one degree or another by a bank. The graffiti in an early scene reads “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.”

So that’s hovering in the background. In the foreground are Toby and Tanner Howard, first seen robbing a small-town branch of the Midlands Bank. (The reference to George W. Bush’s hometown is hardly accidental.) They’re farm boys whose farm is on the verge of being taken away, so they’ve cooked up a plan to rob Peter and pay, uh, Peter. About the only people in the movie who consider this a bad idea are the bankers and the law.

Aside from their shared belief that a bank is best robbed just after it opens, the brothers aren’t much alike. Toby (Chris Pine) is nominally the good son, or was before the farm and his marriage went bust, his wife took his sons, and he started looking like a hollowed-out Tom Joad. Tanner (Ben Foster) is the hair-trigger bad seed, with prison in his past and a habit of waking up as if he’s still there. The casting is especially smart: Pine’s steadiness comes to seem increasingly, heroically bleak while Foster’s charisma gives Tanner a welcome comic snap.

Speaking of casting, Jeff Bridges wallows marvelously as West Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a few weeks from retirement when the boys start hitting banks. (Yes, it’s a cliche, but the movie neatly turns it on its head.) Bridges brings about four extra chins and a deep Plains gargle to the part—he chews on his dialogue like it’s spitting tobacco—and he’s the one character who understands the lay of the land while holding on to his rectitude. He has a strait-laced Hispanic partner (Gil Birmingham, also excellent), whom he razzes mercilessly as a means of toughening up.

Hell or High Water works as a procedural on both sides of the law, following the Rangers as they unravel the criminal logic of their quarry and the Howards as they launder their ill-gotten gains through Native American casinos. The film collapses time and history without breaking a sweat; it’s as rooted in old ways as the Comanche across the poker table from Tanner in one scene and as modern as a posse made up of open-carrying good old boys in pickup trucks.

The last scenes are especially satisfying, both in movie terms—with the cliff-side echoes of Bogart in High Sierra (1941) and Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave (1962)—and in the final moral calculus of banker, lawman, farmer, thief. The dialogue is terse and funny while hinting at much larger matters, such as the way poverty can be handed from generation to generation like a bad gene or a disease.

In fact, while Hell or High Water is being marketed as coming “from the writer of Sicario,” for my money it should be the other way around. They don’t make them like this anymore—but they still can, and here’s the proof.

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