Review by Rob Vaux
“Now what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own…”
— M. Emmet Walsh, Blood Simple
There’s just something about Texas that lends itself to dark meditations and expressions of rebellion: the wide spaces; the beautiful, merciless environment; a culture born out of blood and fury, yet emerging ferociously self-sufficient and rightfully proud of its independent streak. That makes it perfect for a unique variation of Southern Gothic: one part outlaw culture, two parts laconic observation, all blended together with a deep, ingrained desire to stick it to The Man. The Coen Brothers are perhaps the best cinematic practitioners of the form with the likes of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men but the roots go back decades and have included everything from Red Rock West to Cold in July.
Hell or High Water is the latest film to join their ranks, and it holds an honored place among them. It focuses on a fundamental injustice, hones it with a streak of wild rebellion, and invites us to watch it unfold with the serene calm of watching the sun go down on your porch. As a crime saga, it’s amazing, but it reaps its greatest rewards in the intimacy of the characters. Once again, we have a spree of robberies conducted by desperate men with nothing to lose. Once again, a dour law enforcement official arises, concerned with doing his job but sympathetic to the reasons behind the violence. It’s a powerful formula and it shows no signs of abating here, thanks more to the nuts and bolts of its details than to any originality in its story.
It helps to have a solid trio of actors front and center: Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the bank robbers. The duo pull off a series of snatch-and-grab bank robberies against one particular branch: paying off the mortgage it imposed on their mother’s home with money seized from its own coffers. The elder brother (Foster) has experience with this kind of thing; the younger (Pine) is just trying to leave something behind for his children. They’re careful and smart, picking easy targets and striking right when the banks open so they don’t have to worry about big crowds. They take small amounts that can’t be traced, working over time rather than trying for one big score. And they’re striking back against a larger institution that clearly doesn’t give a shit about hard times and would happily turn poor folks like them out of their homes to add a little padding to their profits.
Director David Mackenzie plays out the reasons for the robberies slowly, focusing instead of the contentious-yet-loving relationship between the robbers and their specific methods in conducting their crimes. It becomes a fascinating exercise in how a reasonable person can get away something like this, and how the longer one does it, the more likely that things will go wrong. (Disastrously so if you know crime dramas at all.)
And that’s where the ringer comes in: Bridges, who has slowly honed his cantankerous old coot routine into something truly glorious. His character here is two weeks from retirement, of course, and bears more than a few similarities to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. But he hasn’t given into despair and his slow, careful assessment of his foes makes a delicious counterpoint to the outlaw rage lurking just beneath the surface of his targets.
It’s a simple equation, but the details make it sing. Mackenzie is English by birth, but like the Coens, he understands the strong beating heart beneath stories like this one, and why they’re tied to thoroughly to the state in which they’re set. Hell or High Water would be a superior crime thriller no matter where it was set, but doing so here gives it an extra bit of energy that elevates it to something special. Hollywood is dominated by increasingly large, loud, and expensive epics: multi-movie franchises that almost constitute genres unto themselves. It’s easy to decry such trends… until you see that the stories supposedly getting squeezed out are still here. You just have to look a little harder for them. In the case of Hell or High Water, that extra effort delivers astonishing rewards.