By: Daniel Reynolds
It takes some doing to surprise in a bank heist movie. We’ve seen it all before — films that avoid showing the heist entirely or build to it as a climax, films where the heist turns out well or goes poorly, films with every permutation in between. There’s a lack of new ground to map out there, is my point. Hell or High Water, the latest from director David Mackenzie, makes clear from the start it knows all of this; what’s more, it knows we know it too. In an extended opening sequence, before the credits even finish rolling, the film’s two protagonists have robbed two banks. Minimal motivation, outside of the loot, is given, but a general context of understanding is created. In smooth long shots, a visual thesis emerges: lightly populated and dusty landscapes, debt consolidation billboards, some scrawled graffiti making note of Iraq, inset glass crucifixes, and guns. This is west Texas; of course everyone has a gun.
The protagonists are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively. Both are wounded in their own way; the former has an ex-wife and two sons he’s quietly estranged from, while the latter is newly out of prison. As the film pushes forward, Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gradually roll this character information out in reverse, filling in blanks about the brothers’ parents, their abandoned ranch, and the history, shared or otherwise, pushing them into their current circumstance. It’s not a surprise per se to discover Toby has noble intentions behind his crimes, his hesitation in action standing out as prominently as Tanner’s confident, violent recklessness. Nor is it shocking to find out which one of these two brothers has nothing left to lose. When you decide to cast Pine and Foster, this becomes the natural way of doing things. Pine has the movie star good looks and thoughtful eyes of a conflicted leading man; Foster on the other hand now has thinning hair to complement his close-set, wild eyes. Both embody their roles naturally with a physical chemistry that works, even if neither of them screams “Texan” exactly. (Though in Foster’s case, this is not from a lack of trying; the dude does a lot of maniac screaming here.)
As in all heist movies, there needs to be some opposition too. Into that space strides lawman Marcus Hamilton, played with croaking determination by Jeff Bridges. Like the brothers, the broad strokes of Marcus’ character are familiar. He’s an old timer on his way out to retirement, he’s got a half-Mexican, half-Native partner named Alberto (Gil Birmingham) he never tires of teasing, and his sense of the job is rooted in equal parts law, order and frontier (or karmic?) justice. Bridges’ brings a well-worn casualness to the role; his Marcus doesn’t move fast, and often only does one thing at a time (don’t ask him to drive and talk on the phone together), but it’s made clear he is still sharp. Like the film, Marcus is much sharper than you’d think at first. It’s been 45 years since Bridges first appeared in the Dust Bowl, and while you maybe wouldn’t have guessed he’d still be around, he now evokes the same Sam the Lion presence he once stood across from all those years ago. Bridges is the rock on which Mackenzie builds his Texas roadhouse.
Despite being from and working in England, Mackenzie’s first foray into American storytelling is a fulsome one. While his last film, the brutal prison drama Starred Up, works almost entirely in shaky close up, here his camera breathes and glides. Where that film was claustrophobic, here there is an expansiveness. In both cases however, Mackenzie has a firm handle on the same type of masculine and strangled desperation; it’s a theme that can cross oceans easily enough. In Hell or High Water, the streets of most of the towns these men visit feel empty, but the details are filled in nonetheless. (One standout scene has a man leaving on horseback just as the Howard boys pull in.) Mackenzie knows when to move his camera as if on the prowl, or when to float above to better contrast these small figures against the massive landscape. And of course, when the action does pick up, the geography of car chases and gun battles is never in question. Mackenzie is no tourist.
Setting aside the film’s structure, which labours to bake in some twists, the plot of Hell or High Water remains simple. On a primary level, it’s an uncomplicated tale of cops and robbers. From a different vantage point, the aforementioned visual thesis turns literal. The brothers — or at least Toby — have something of a hopeful, personal Robin Hood-esque notion assigned to what it is they’re doing. The film however suggests a grander struggle, not so much one with Marcus and the law, or even the conniving bankers who have a role to play in the area’s collective destitution, but with the arc of American history itself. Just as it moves backwards through the Howards’ shared past, the film asks us informally to consider previous generations as well, all the way out to the very discovery of the West. As Alberto remarks to Marcus as they cross the state in pursuit, one group took this land from another and now gets to stand dumbly by as it’s stolen again. After the film’s action largely sets things right, as it were, we’re left at this quiet conclusion, a single point in an unbroken cycle. Good or bad, hell or high water, all of these men end up in the same place. Maybe that’s why there are no surprises left.