“We ain’t stealing from you. We’re stealing from the bank.”—Toby Howard.
Billed as a modern-day Western, Hell or High Water is about two brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard (brilliantly portrayed by Foster and Pine), that have been driven to robbing banks in order to save their family’s farm in West Texas. Detective Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), three weeks from retirement, takes up the case of finding and stopping them. When a botched robbery ends with the death of two citizens, all three men rumble toward a destructive and violent altercation.
Classic Westerns were about heroes, good guys that came in to save the day from the bad guys. Hell or High Water blurs the notion of what it is to be good or bad. Tanner and Toby rob banks in order to save their family’s farm (arguably, according to Hamilton, Tanner does it “cause he likes it,” having served jail time for previous robberies), but their cause is morally good. However, they’re committing crimes in order to achieve their moral goal—a very Robin Hood-esque ideal. Marcus Hamilton and his partner, Alberto (an underrated Gil Birmingham), are good because they’re trying to stop the “bad guys,” the men robbing banks. In an monologue by Alberto to Marcus as they’re staking out a bank that they believe the Howard brothers are going to hit next, he says “A long time ago your ancestors was the Indians until someone came along and killed them. Broke ’em down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see, everything you saw yesterday. Until the grandparents of these folks took it. Now it’s been taken from them. ‘Cept it ain’t no army doin’ it, it’s those sons of bitches right there” and he points at the bank. It’s a moment of empathy from Alberto (who’s half Comanche, half Mexican), who understands and probably pities the two bank robbers, and it blurs the line for the audience as to who is the bad guy: the guy robbing the bank, or the banks themselves?
Constantly we are shown panoramic shots of the barren Texas landscape, homes for sale, billboards for debt relief, foreclosure help; Mackenzie, with his direction, shows a society in which people are downtrodden and out of luck. He forces us to empathize with the Howard brothers by forcing us to look at ourselves and wonder what we would do if that were us. Toby only wants money so his kids won’t grow up poor like he did, and isn’t that all anyone wants, is the best for their kids?
A lot of talk has been made of Amy Adams getting snubbed for a nomination; now, I haven’t seen Arrival yet, but for me, it is criminal that neither Ben Foster or Chris Pine snagged nominations for their roles. Foster possesses this crazy energy that he was allowed to unleash as Tanner, the reckless older brother, while Chris Pine proved that he can act with the best of them as Toby—quiet, intense, and committed to making a better life for his sons.
With that being said, Jeff Bridges fully deserves his nomination. He plays Marcus Hamilton almost as if The Dude became a Texas Ranger in his older years; Hamilton is laid back, full of unconventional wisdom, and is constantly poking fun at his “half-breed” partner. Bridges plays off of all of his co-stars with joviality and gravelly good-natured-ness; it’s when Bridges is onscreen alone is when we see his true acting chops. During the climactic ending, we see Bridges run through a gambit of emotions during a ten-second shot: anger, grief, elation. It’s in this scene that we realize we’ve been watching a master this whole time.
It’s too bad that Hell or High Water will probably be upstaged by the other films in the running for Best Picture, because it’s a really smart, thought-provoking film, disguised as a Western. I think if there’s one person to win Best Supporting Actor over Bridges, it’ll be Mahershala Ali for his turn in Moonlight.
Fun fact: The movie is set in West Texas, but almost the entire film was shot in New Mexico.
Scene to watch: So many…this scene is really when we start to realize that Tanner is just in it for the thrill. Also, this scene where Toby beats the crap out of some punk kid is pretty awesome.
Why you should watch it: If you were looking for a film to rekindle your love of Westerns, this would be a good place to start.
Why you shouldn’t: If you have trouble understanding Southern accents.
If you liked/loved/hated Hell or High Water, let me know in the comments section!