Quick Hit: A terrific modern western that goes further than bad or good, but questions whether morals and issues can exist on both sides of the law.
I don’t have too many westerns in my current movie collection. It’s not that I don’t like them – frankly, I love them – but most of the classic ones are so outdated. As I stated in the Quick Hit, most of the classic westerns draw pretty definitive (and mostly racist) lines as to who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. In most places, that means cowboys are good and Indians (now Native Americans).
Hell or High Water addresses these old movies plenty of times. Once, a cowboy references the fact that it’s the twentieth century, and he’s still sending cows across the road, and it’s no surprise that his kids wouldn’t want to do it. One of the Texas Rangers is a Native American, and the other Ranger jokingly refers to his heritage in a racist way. However, what makes Hell or High Water unique (or at least a good comparison to the excellent No Country for Old Men) is the fact that the film doesn’t draw those definitive lines. Instead, it allows the viewer to make their own conclusions, which allows for quite a bit of grey area.
The movie follows brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard as the begin a bank robbing spree across a small portion of Texas. The brothers are different from each other in some crucial ways – whereas Toby seems reluctant, Tanner seems as if he relishes the opportunity to be doing this. “We’re Comanches little brother”, he yells when riding away.
Another difference is the way they are robbing banks, only taking the small bills from the drawers and only hitting a specific bank. After a few are hit in one day, Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to the case. Marcus is almost at the mandatory retirement, and it’s clear that the man is so not ready to leave. He doesn’t know what a life of retirement will hold for him.
This film is about several things, but most of all, seems to be about the gentle comraderie that takes place between men. Though Tanner has done several stints in jail, he and his brother Toby obviously have a great report. They may not agree on everything, but it’s the quiet moments between them that shows that brotherly love that is so deep. Marcus and Alberto have this as well, as the business of having long term partnership often brings men closer than brothers. Their not-so-gentle ribbing of each other causes a bit of wincing, but you can tell the love that is involved.
A lot of this comes through from the acting. Across the board I thought it was terrific, with Foster and Bridges giving particularly impressive feats. There is one scene in the movie where Bridges exhibits gusto, bravado, fear, sorrow, anger, relief, and happiness within the span of ten minutes. It’s no wonder the man is up for an Academy Award. Foster is terrific in coming across as just crazy enough to have everything be believable. He also has a number of soft moments in the beginning of the film that show more motivations than just being off his rocker
The dialogue is also terrific. I’ve mentioned a number of times how the different men verbally joust with each other, but it’s some of the side characters that have exceptional dialogue. There’s a waitress that makes you reach out your heart to her, a bank teller with a biblical side, and a waitress that will absolutely make you crack up. I couldn’t believe how well this painted a picture of the American South. It’s also telling that other side characters are present for “old fashioned lynchings” and things of that sort, and that a cautious respect is given to the Texas Rangers. Makes me miss Chuck Norris.
The last thing I wanted to touch on was the cinematography in general. Often framed in takes that start large and end small, you can often see things when the characters are traveling reflecting the state of Texas in general (we’ll just pretend this wasn’t filmed in New Mexico). You can see the run down nature, and it makes the men’s justification for robbing the only standing buildings in town seem… more acceptable, let’s say. These shots are beautiful and are brought together by the action of the camera.
Overall, this is a great movie that I’ll highly recommend. It is up for Best Picture, Best Supportin Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan), and Best Film Editing (Jake Roberts). Overall from me, I’m going to give it an “A-“.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"