Hell or High Water

(2016) *** 1/2 R
102 min. CBS Films. Director: David MacKenzie. Cast: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey.

/content/films/4954/1.jpgAll the great bank robbers galvanized support with waves of populism that redefined justice by the Robin Hood model. Banks have increasingly become no-win targets for criminals, even as financial institutions face decreasing trust through corrupt practices that have unreasonably exploited lenders and customers. Old-school bank robbery meets the new economy—and the New West—in Hell or High Water, a lean tale of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and customers and bankers.

Penned by Taylor Sheridan (the actor turned screenwriter who made a splash with his Sicario script last year), Hell or High Water sometimes allows its dialogue to spill over from naturalism to self-conscious commentary about America’s changing social landscape. But such bluntness scores a fair point about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Land ownership turns over with each generation, and inevitably lives are wiped away as collateral damage in the pursuit of material value.

Most of the time, though, the point remains subtext to a crime drama with shades of noir and the Western. In West Texas, two brothers begin knocking off branches of the Texas Midlands Bank with unnervingly reckless abandon. Younger brother Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is the grim mastermind, while his volatile older brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has the boldness and enthusiasm for violence to ensure the plan keeps moving forward. On their trail are two Texas Rangers: Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a canny old lawman due for mandatory retirement, and his testy partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The specificity of the robbers’ targets tips off that the crime spree is personal, a plot to make the bank repay its own predatory mortgage and secure a prosperous future for the next generation of Howard boys. Throughout, we see the signs that such concerns are widespread: angry graffiti (“3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUTS FOR PEOPLE LIKE US”), billboards promising debt relief, and ghost-town main streets. “All these towns are dead,” Tanner notes, and indeed death seems to be wherever the brothers are, from an early visit to their mother’s hauntingly empty hospital bed to their own assumption about where they’re heading. Sheridan also wryly dramatizes the irony of the community’s embrace of violence: the concealed-carry allowance adds a scary complication to each robbery.

Tart banter helps keep Hell or High Water moving from one tense action scene to the next, as well as the mockingly sunny aesthetic that unforgivingly keeps at the fore the beauty and mercilessness of the territory in contention. Most importantly, this is a film for actors to do fine, unshowy work. In particular, Pine’s at his best in keeping Toby’s subtle centeredness and determination tightly coiled, and national treasure Bridges maps Hamilton’s Cormac McCarthy-esque existentialism, his irrepressible humor and, at a climactic moment, a blindsiding wellspring of conflicting emotion.

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