‘Hell or High Water’ thrills audience, poses deep questions

Charles Liu

The barren plains of West Texas dominate “Hell or High Water.” A devastating recession keeps people living on the fringe. Debt-tackling investment firm ads line every street corner. The environment reeks of desperation.

The movie hits the ground running as two impoverished brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), rob self-interested banks. The calm and reserved Toby, a divorced father, wants to amass wealth for his sons and save the family farm. The reckless and excitable Tanner, an ex-con, takes part in the robberies to help out his younger brother, but he doesn’t have much more to glean from their activities than an adrenaline rush.

Pine and Foster’s brotherhood gives “Hell or High Water” intimate weight. They run the gamut of emotions, brooding quietly with beers in hand on their front porch in one scene, then roughhousing while the sun sets in the next. Of the two performances, Pine’s work resonates more. He has matured into a thoughtful and resonant performer, and his expressive eyes are instantly recognizable — even when the rest of his face is concealed by a ski mask.

But the brothers’ quest is challenged when their crimes catch the attention of Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Facing forced retirement and still grieving for his late wife, Marcus takes out his frustrations by relentlessly insulting Alberto’s Comanche and Mexican ancestry. Bridges is gruff; Birmingham is cool. They don’t get as much screen time as the brothers, but they make just as strong of an impression thanks to their humorous line delivery.

The lives of all four men converge in a deadly desert standoff, but the ramifications of their conflict stem far beyond their violence during the film’s heartbreaking conclusion.    

Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan craft a taut, layered and involving thriller populated by memorable characters with strong motivations. Sheridan, who wrote last year’s exquisite “Sicario,” keeps the story flowing with sharp back-and-forth dialogue between his characters. He makes the smallest of moments stand out, such as the little scene in which Marcus and Alberto stop at a modest steakhouse and get reprimanded by its feisty waitress (Margaret Bowman), or when Tanner riles up a pair of thugs at the gas station. These moments imbue “Hell or High Water” with personality, something many of this summer’s films have failed to provide.  

Mackenzie doesn’t glamorize the lives of crime or law enforcement. There’s nothing pretty about what both pairs of men face, especially beneath the blistering sun and the dry plains in which “Hell or High Water” takes place. Toby and Tanner are likable thieves who audiences will often forget are criminals. The Rangers are equally sympathetic, and their relentless taunts and teasing belie their growing bond as well as their own fears of death. Neither side is wholly good nor evil.  

While the film has an old-timey crime vibe similar to that of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Hell or High Water” tackles distinctly modern issues. And although it doesn’t take sides when it finally lays bare its central moral question, it does make one stop and wonder. For all the bullets shot and all the blood spilled in “Hell or High Water,” the true villain is want.

  • “Hell or High Water”
  • Running Time: 102 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Score: 5/5 stars