“I’ve been working here since 19 and 87. Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout. We ain’t got no goddamned trout.”
—T-Bone Diner waitress
I must admit: I got good and liquored up before I saw Hell or High Water. Fortunately, my buzz did not ruin the movie—or vice versa.
Hell or High Water is a richly layered, rather cerebral Western heist film. Two brothers, cool and brooding Toby (Chris Pine) and impulsive ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), systematically hold up various branches of Texas Midland, a bank in rural west Texas. Initially, the series of robberies comes off as a mindless crime spree for two punk cowboys in ski masks and a shitty car. It turns out to be much more complicated: Toby has a week to come up with thousands of dollars to pay off the mortgage on the family ranch, or shady Texas Midland will foreclose on it. The brothers attract the attention of sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who follow their trail patiently and methodically with good old-fashioned horse sense.
Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is thoughtfully tight and complex, loaded with plot turns and moral questions. He raises provocative points about capitalism and the American finance system. All of his characters are flawed but sympathetic, making Hell or High Water more than a simple good-versus-evil story. There is no real hero here. Director David Mackenzie maintains a really nice balance of tension, drama, and humor without relying on gunfire and chases (though both of those are in the film). The acting is superb—I can’t think of a single performance that isn’t stellar. The multitude of minor characters—waitresses (Margaret Bowman and Debrianna Mansini), townsfolk, bank employees (Dale Dickey and Joe Berryman)—give the film its color. Hell or High Water has a major Coen Brothers vibe to it—think Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men. The pace is painfully slow at points, but it works. Giles Nuttgens’s sunbleached cinematography is nothing short of stunning, and it beautifully captures the ominously vast and barren landscape that seems to suffocate everyone in it.