Finally, in these torpid August weeks, a good summer movie. One with real movie stars, one grizzled (Jeff Bridges) and one young (Chris Pine), playing real human beings, and doing so without costumes and masks — well, except for the costume of a Texas Ranger and the mask that men put on when they set out to rob a bank.
The movie is Hell or High Water. Pine is the robber, Bridges the Ranger, and Ben Foster, doing his usual terrific burn, is the robber’s brother, the actual criminal in the family. This detail becomes clear as we watch their first two bank robberies go down: Pine’s character is grim and cautious and honorable, his brother is freestyling and having the time of his life. The heists themselves are nothing fancy, no Ocean’s Eleven or Michael Mann–style capers, just a series of cash grabs at the scattered branches of the Texas Midland Bank, a lender whose vulnerable outposts are scattered across the parched West Texas plains.
Their speed and simplicity, the absence of dumb mistakes (no vault-cracking greed, no packs of bills because those might be marked), makes Bridges’s lawman, Marcus Hamilton, suspect that the robbers aren’t just tweakers or thrill-seekers, that they actually have a plan. His fellow Ranger, Alberto Parker, whose half-Comanche, half-Mexican background inspires a lively patter of racist humor from Bridges’ character, accuses his partner of looking for a last rush of drama before he shuffles into retirement. Which Marcus clearly is, but he isn’t wrong about his quarry: There is a plan, and it belongs to Pine’s Toby, the brother who was a relatively respectable citizen until recently.
Now, though, his mother is in the grave, and Texas Midland Bank is coming for her land, promising foreclosure unless he can get his hands on some substantial cash. Toby’s had a bad run — divorced and distant from his kids, working drilling jobs that keep vanishing out from under him (and everyone else in West Texas, to judge by the boarded-up storefronts in every town they pass through). But he knows a secret about his mother’s farmland, one that makes it an inheritance worth keeping — or worth passing on to his sons, to give them the leg up that he and his reckless brother never had. And what better way to keep it in the family than to swipe the necessary money from the very bank that bled his mother dry?
Hell or High Water is a newfangled western, but it’s also a Great Recession story, in the style of Breaking Bad, though without that show’s nightmarish moral descent. Toby keeps our sympathy, mostly, and when things go bad it’s usually the fault of Foster’s Tanner, the brother who knows only the wrong side of the law and whose instinct is always to push, and push, and push again — sometimes charmingly, sometimes boldly, sometimes disastrously, and always with a fatalistic credo: “I never known nobody to get away with anything.”
The brothers are archetypes, as are their pursuers, and the movie’s major themes — the cruelty of American commerce, the West gradually being taken from the kind of man who won it — are not exactly subtle. A small-town witness tells the lawmen that he sat there “long enough to watch a bank get robbed that’s been robbing me for years,” while a splash of bank-wall graffiti reads like a Trump voter’s credo (“three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”). There’s a random cowboy driving cattle across the road who shouts about how out of date he feels, and Parker’s distinctive ethnic mix is underlined at every turn — his Comanche lineage a reminder of the last lords of these plains and what became of them, his Mexican side a hint of the future coming to replace these Yankee cowboys before long.
But the director, David MacKenzie, and the screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan (who penned last year’s border melodrama Sicario), know how to work effectively in a minor key as well. The smaller scenes and details — the kind of grace notes missing from most of Hollywood’s major entertainments nowadays — keep the movie’s archetypes from thudding: an encounter between Toby and a friendly waitress, the two Rangers talking religion in a motel room while a televangelist preaches on TV, a trip to a T-bone-steak restaurant where the only question is which side you don’t want, plus a series of only-in-Texas moments in which civilians caught in the crossfire turn out to be eager to pull their own guns and get involved.
Is the movie itself small? Well, it’s tightly focused, basically a four-character drama (Toby’s ex-wife and lawyer seem as if they might have had more dialogue in an earlier script draft), without the metaphysical horizons of, say, No Country for Old Men or the budget of a typical action blockbuster.
But it has major stars, it’s thick with gunfights and never dull, it belongs to a classic American genre . . . so there’s no necessary reason why it couldn’t have rolled out on 3,000 screens and been given the marketing push of a Ghostbusters or Star Trek or Jason Bourne. Except that it’s not a sequel or a comic book or a pre-sold property, so it’s getting a soft, art-house opening — put it in 500 theaters, hope for good reviews (it’s gotten them) and word of mouth and maybe an Oscar nod for Bridges, and declare victory if it makes $35 million and does well on video-on-demand.
But if everyone who saw the latest Bourne retread (current gross, $140 million; quality level, low) went to see Hell or High Water instead — well, I won’t say that it would change the way Hollywood does business nowadays, because it wouldn’t. But in a small way it would make the world a better place.