The big economic recession that hit eight years ago has inspired its share of films like 99 Homes and The Big Short, but even the lightest of these have been burdened by a certain amount of preachiness and moral outrage. The contemporary Western Hell or High Water is refreshingly free of these things as this ferocious thriller plays out amid a backdrop of billboards advertising debt services and payday loans. It lets us make our own judgments about what its flawed characters do, and that makes this low-budget genre exercise (which expands into Tarrant County theaters this week) one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine respectively portray ex-convict Tanner Howard and his younger brother and newcomer to crime Toby, who run around rural West Texas robbing the branches of a fictitious statewide bank. Their mother recently died owing a $25,000 reverse mortgage plus back taxes on the family’s ranch, and the Tanner boys are looking to save their property by repaying the bank that owns the mortgage — the very one that they’re robbing.
The thing is, the ranch has more than sentimental value. Oil has been discovered on their land, so the Howards are not only looking to stay afloat but to become very wealthy if they can clear the debt. That complicates their status as the heroic little guys standing up to the big, evil bank. The script is by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario. Unlike that movie, this one actually earns its moral ambiguity by making us feel the brothers’ anxiety to escape their poverty but also having a crusty old Texas Ranger named Marcus (Jeff Bridges) on hand to count up the cost of their crimes as he runs them down. Marcus’ part-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham) sees it with him and delivers a memorable meditation on history: “One hundred and fifty years ago, my ancestors owned all this land … until the grandparents of these folks killed them and took it away. Now it’s being taken away from them, and it ain’t no army doin’ it.” Another way that this improves on Sicario is that Sheridan cuts the crime and class consciousness with a good dose of humor here, like a priceless scene at a steakhouse where an ancient waitress (Margaret Bowman) imperiously informs the state troopers what she will deign to serve them.
This is the first American movie for British director David Mackenzie, who has evolved into a sure hand with action, especially in the Howards’ last robbery, which explodes into bloodshed because of a customer with a gun deciding to play hero. Mackenzie shot this movie in New Mexico, and the blasted desert landscape vividly stands in for the rural poverty that the outlaw brothers are desperate to escape. The scene when Tanner holes up in the mountains with a sniper rifle and starts picking off the lawmen pursuing him unwittingly evokes the recent Dallas police shootings. It may be too close to the bone for some viewers, but it’s undeniably well-executed.
For once, Pine is cast as something other than the golden boy, and he makes out well as a father of two sons (who no longer want to be around him) who takes a hyper-cautious approach to his new criminal career and sticks by his brother no matter what kind of crazy violent crap he pulls. Even so, it’s Bridges who comes off best, partly because he gets many of the best lines; spotting a portly bank manager, he says, “There’s a man who looks like he could foreclose on a house.” Funny as he is, he’s also magnificent in that aforementioned shootout in the mountains, when Marcus ends the standoff and then sits on an outcropping as a mix of triumph and grief washes over him. Bridges won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for giving a similar performance in the remake of True Grit, but he’s even better here.
Nowhere is that clearer than in a final confrontation between Marcus and Toby on a front porch, where we finally see how Toby has been squeezed by the poverty that has run through his family and the American mindset that tells men that they’re not men if they don’t have the outward trappings of success. By the end of Hell or High Water, that pressure has recoiled not just on Toby but on everybody who has crossed his path. The open-ended conclusion is a perfect ending to this towering Western for our time.
[box_info]Hell or High Water
Starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine, and Jeff Bridges. Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Rated R.[/box_info]