In many ways, there’s no mistaking the West Texas of Hell or High Water for the West Texas of any other era. It’s a place of small, half-deserted towns that appear not to have had much going on since the days of The Last Picture Show. Billboards advertising debt relief — and little else — line its roads. At one point a cowboy, driving his herd away from a raging fire, wonders aloud how he can possibly still be doing this in the 21st century. A casino by the highway now defines the boundaries of Comanche territory. Yet against all the unmistakable markers of the present, the film plays out an old story about bandits, lawmen, and bank robberies — albeit one that sometimes makes it hard to know who to root for.
“You all are new at this, I’m guessing, ” a clerk tells the two masked men — brothers, we’ll soon learn — attempting to rob her before her branch opens in the film’s first scene as they fumble to get the job done. In truth, she’s only half right. Tanner (Ben Foster), is an old hand at robbing banks, having only recently been released from prison for a previous score. But Toby (Chris Pine), is new both to bank robbery and crime in general. He’s only seen the inside of a court, a later bit of dialogue reveals, during his divorce proceedings. And though the job could have gone more smoothly, Tanner and Toby have a definite plan: Uninterested in making a big score, they want only the small bills from the cashier’s drawer, an approach they bring to subsequent robberies. Their goal is to obtain a set amount of money before a date in the near future, though the movie keeps us in the dark about why.
Instead, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Spread), working from a script by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, lets us discover their plan alongside the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton’s clever and bored, and while brothers’ robberies are almost too small-time to be worth his time he sees a mystery that needs cracking and takes the excuse to trade his desk in Lubbock for the dusty road. With Parker in tow, he starts to trail them and the film becomes a tense, deliberately paced game of cat and mouse.
Thanks to Bridges’ graying hair, mustache, and cowboy hat, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that he’s aging into Sam Elliott’s Stranger character from The Big Lebowski. He’s played characters whose advancing years have figured into the story (Crazy Heart and True Grit, for instance) but this is the first time the now-66-year-old actor has let himself play a senior citizen staring down retirement. He wears the part well, playing Hamilton as a man who’s learned to take his time and has seen enough weirdness and ugliness in the line of duty that nothing really surprises him anymore. It’s a pleasure just to hear the way Bridges wraps a drawl around a line like “They bopped you in the shnozzola, huh?”
There are depths beneath his laconic persona, though, and not all of them pleasant. It’s quickly evident that Hamilton keeps going in part because he has nowhere else to go. A widower, he knows he’s unsuited for just sitting around on the porch. Whether he solves the case or not, there’s no happy ending awaiting him at the other end. And whatever affection Hamilton and Parker have for each other isn’t always evident in Parker’s responses to Hamilton’s jokes about his half-Comanche, half-Mexican heritage. Having spent years with Hamilton, he’s heard it all before. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.
Their contrasting personalities sometimes mirrors the relationship between Tanner and Toby, two men united by blood and a common goal but little else. Where Toby calculates his next move, Tanner rushes into danger. Together they help balance each other. It’s unlikely Toby would have the boldness to embark on a crime spree without his brother’s inspiration or that Tanner would have the inspiration to bury their getaway cars, making their stick-and-grab jobs nearly impossible to trace.
The actors play into the complexity. Pine hides his Captain Kirk charm and swagger beneath layers of dirt, facial hair, and shyness. Just talking seems to pain him. Talking about his life and how he came to live alone in his late mother’s house away from an ex-wife and two sons who want nothing to do with him seems like it would be torture. He’s matched nicely by Foster playing a man who’s never looked away from danger, no matter how smart a move that might have been. In one scene he meets, pisses off, and stares down a stranger and the moment reveals virtually everything we need to know about where the character comes from, and where he’s headed.
Mackenzie often lets the environment set the mood, never rushing as the characters move through arid plains or empty streets. The unhurried approach both ratchets up the tension and allows more time to get to know the players, who often talk around what they want to say in barbed, witty, Elmore Leonard-inspired dialogue as they work their way toward a showdown that feels as inevitable as the sundown. When the film reveals the brothers’ scheme and the reasons behind it, it’s as contemporary as today’s headlines. Yet, twist and all, their story — and Hamilton’s story, and the stories of the town’s time left behind — is an old one. But it’s one Hell or High Water‘s modern dress Western makes feel as vibrant, tense, and resonant as ever.