Hell or High Water opens with a quiet moment in a small Texan town. The empty streets are shown as woman pulls her car into the parking lot and makes her way to her place of employment: a bank. As she enters, she is caught unaware by two masked figures who aim to rob the bank, but they are there too soon – the tills aren’t filled until the manager arrives to open the safe, and the robbers specifically are only after the tills, not larger sums of money like the safe would hold. The robbers question each other as to their next course of action and it’s at this moment that the movie could go in several directions. Does it become a comedy akin to Bandits? Does the scene become tragic like when things go wrong in The Lookout? Instead, Hell or High Water goes its own way, becoming one of those unique stories that is built on the shoulders of other genres, but itself refusing to be identified as a comedy or crime drama or thriller or anything specific. Instead, the movie is its own thing, which is why a lot of people probably haven’t even heard of the picture, despite the involvement of big names like Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges.
Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, who are the aforementioned robbers in the opening scene. Immediately the differences between the brothers are clear. Tanner (Foster) has spent a decade in prison for reasons that are a lot nobler than one would expect, while Toby (Pine) has an ex-wife and two sons, and spent the last few months with the boy’s ailing mother before she passed away some time before the narrative begins. Despite those differences, the brothers are working together now to rob a series of banks and their approach to the jobs are meticulous. They are specific about what they want and careful about how they handle getting rid of potential evidence, yet there is always room for mistakes, especially as the audience realizes how unstable Tanner is – clearly the byproduct of his time in the prison system.
At its core, Hell or High Water is a heist flick. While the audience sees the brothers robbing banks from the first scene, we don’t know the complete story – what the money is going towards, why they are so specific about their targets, etc. Like any good heist story, that added information is revealed as the story unfolds. Instead of a flashy game plan like Ocean’s Eleven or high energy action like Furious 7, those moments of revelation take Hell or High Water deeper and deeper into true moments of drama – conflict between family members, haunted pasts, and the sins of the father are all unveiled. These are the moments that, as mentioned before, keep the movie from being defined wholly by the genre. They are also the moments where Pine and Foster truly excel. These brothers are very different people with very different approaches to life based on the decisions they’ve made both past and present, but underneath it all there is a lot of love, and ultimately the heist going on represents the ultimate sacrifice both characters are willing to make for their family.
Chasing the Howard brothers is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), the clichéd just-a-few-weeks-from-retirement dogged pursuer. The trope affords a lot of opportunities for Hamilton and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), to poke fun at each other as they mount the investigation both know will be Hamilton’s last. Much like the odd way brotherly love can be shown, the affection between these two Rangers is a high point of the film as well. Bridges has been playing similar characters lately, utilizing a gruff, country persona for True Grit, Crazy Heart, and even R.I.P.D., but while there are similarities in the persona, the character works here because of the surprising depth revealed through his interactions with his partner and his relentless dedication to resolving this final case. It’s no surprise to see Bridges’ name showing up on award nominations lists, although I submit that any of the four leads are equally worthy of such accolades.
You may have noticed no mention of romance in this description. Again, departing from the Hollywood norm, there is no romantic interest in the film. At one point it appears that Toby and his ex-wife have the potential for reconciliation, but then the story goes a different direction. Romance isn’t important. Heck, beauty isn’t important, as evidenced by the arid Texas landscapes and the decrepit small towns, just one step away from ghost-town status, that make up the backgrounds of the movie. The Texas setting also affords the opportunity to play with the conflict between Indians and white men, especially as Hamilton’s partner is part native. Comanche, we are told, means “enemy to everyone,” and in such a barren, desolate landscape it’s easy to see why anyone, particularly Tanner, who has made bad choices in life, might feel that way. There is no romance. There is no beauty. And the only saving grace from being an enemy to everyone in life is the salvation of brotherly love, whether it comes in the form of an actual brother or just a close partner that can be trusted with one’s life.
While the criminals and the rangers spend the bulk of the story separated, the pinnacle of the movie comes in a scene that puts Pine’s Toby and Bridges’ Hamilton face to face in a most unexpected way. It allows both actors to take full ownership of their characters and finally reveals any missing puzzle pieces the audience didn’t already put together on their own. It is the kind of scene that movie aficionados dream of and that writers want to be able to take credit for creating. Man versus man. No guns. No glory. A moment as somber and filled with silence as the one that opened the story: an amazing selection of writing, direction, acting, and editing. It’s no wonder after that scene to see the movie on so many critics’ “Best of” lists for 2016. It certainly earned that spot in this writer’s eyes and comes highly recommended as one of those best movies you’ve probably barely heard of.