It may involves high speed car chases instead of horse races, but with “Hell or High Water,” director David Mackenzie — with the help of an excellent script by Taylor Sheridan — has crafted one of the best westerns in years, and one of the best films of this year, showing how the genre can continually be adapted to relay a relevant message in contemporary times.
The film opens with a bank robbery. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) have been traveling across West Texas, robbing different branches of the Texas Midlands bank. Toby is rational, cautious, and the brains behind the plan; Tanner, an ex-con, is reckless. They are pursued by two elder Texas Rangers: Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
It is later revealed why Toby has enlisted Tanner to help him commit these robberies, and only against the Texas Midlands bank specifically. Their mother recently passed away, leaving their ranch in debt. If he doesn’t collect enough money in a few days time, the Texas Midlands bank will foreclose on it. Toby wants to pay off the mortgage because oil has recently been discovered on the land, and he knows he could sell the rights to the oil so his sons can live the comfortable life he never had. His plan is simple, but brilliant: rob the Texas Midlands banks. Take the cash to a casino, convert them to chips, win more money, and then cash that in for a check: a check made out to the Texas Midlands bank. Essentially, Toby is paying Texas Midlands back with their own money.
Of, everything doesn’t continue to go smoothly, especially after Hamilton deduces a pattern in the robbery locations. It all leads up to a heart-racing climax and a wonderfully ambiguous finale.
The actors are all first rate, with Pine delivering his finest performance to date; in fact, it’s probably the performance that really shows off his acting prowess. Foster plays off of him wonderfully as his more reckless counterpart, but despite their differences, their love for each other and for their family is always obvious. Bridges continues to show why he’s such a fine actor, delivering a nuanced performance as a retiring ranger coming to terms with a changing world. He also has fine chemistry with his onscreen partner played by the fantastic Birmingham, and it’s interesting to compare the two pairs: the bickering bank-robbing brothers and the bickering old rangers. The clashing of the old world with the modern one is a theme that is touched on throughout the film, so when Hamilton and Toby finally meet, their confrontation feels like the embodiment of that.
The film features some beautiful cinematography ranging from dirty little towns that seem to exist out of time to vast, sandy landscapes, and the action is fast-paced. Mackenzie makes every moment count, and as the plot advances, it becomes apparent just how deeply layered each character is.
It is very likely that there will be better films this year than “Hell or High Water;” awards season, the time where most of the finest films from both major and independent studios make appearances, is only just beginning. But if there are better films, it’s difficult to imagine them being better by that much. In the capable hands of Mackenzie and Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” stands as its own little masterpiece.
5 out of 5 stars. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated R.