Impressive ride through myth of American West
Hell or High Water is no blockbuster, but it just might be the most richly rewarding of this summer’s movie entertainments. The film itself, directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, makes no conspicuous claim for masterpiece status, but the sheer abundance of brilliant moments and special textures is very impressive.
The main ingredients are unmistakably generic. It’s an action drama, set in contemporary west Texas. Its main characters are a pair of bank-robbing brothers and the aging Texas Ranger who’s on their trail. In a way, it’s also a chase movie, with cowboy types driving motor vehicles rather than riding horseback, but even the chases and hold-ups become occasions for bursts of character drama and flashes of in-transit social commentary.
And perhaps the greater part of the movie’s action and drama is a matter of those three main characters, men of action all, reflecting on and struggling with what they’ve done and what they might do next.
Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is a widower, a gruff old-timer nearing retirement, but not at all inclined to attach himself to anything other than an active Texas lawman’s way of life. His superficially contentious relationship with his Ranger partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is pretty clearly the most meaningful part of what’s left of his life, personally as well as professionally.
The wild-running Howard brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), are mostly unalike, but both are wholly committed to their privately declared mission of robbing a series of small-town banks in order to raise enough cash to save their deceased parents’ ranch from foreclosure.
Tanner, a reckless sort of career criminal, seems to like the plan for the sake of the crimes themselves. Toby, the chief architect of their scheme (which includes some convoluted financial maneuvers), intends only to establish something for his estranged teenage sons to inherit.
Gradually, and convincingly, Mackenzie and Sheridan build a sense that the Ranger and the brothers are separate parts of a tragic triangle that’s riding on the fumes of Wild West mythology, the romance of the Texas-style outlaw, legends of the Texas Rangers, etc.
Ranger Hamilton is no heroic masked man, but his companion is part Comanche, part Mexican. The tragic history of the Comanche people figures explicitly in the story’s cross-cultural dynamics, and Tanner’s confrontation with a modern Comanche (Gregory Cruz) echoes significantly in his overall characterization. Toward the end, Toby and Hamilton are dressed like versions of each other, rather as if both stand for the same code of values, even as each remains very much his own distinctive self.
The film’s shrewd, half-comical scrambling of genre conventions and social stereotypes extends to its wealth of incidental characters and detail—a single cowboy trying to get a herd of cattle across a highway and away from the prairie fire in the distance; an old-timer in a cowboy hat shooting out the windows of a bank while trying to stop the escaping thieves; a “rattlesnake” of a waitress who gets instant respect from two rangers who just want to order dinner; a bevy of local types who refuse to be impressed by bank robbers and guns and such, etc.