The phrase “come hell or high water” is almost always used in the hypothetical. As an exaggeration of the obstacles to be faced. “I will meet you for a drink after work come hell or high water,” and a printer jam or a late deadline is the level of catastrophe to be overcome.
But in Hell or High Water, the catastrophe has already happened. Hell and (metaphorical) high water have come and gone, and there’s still life to be gotten on with. It has happened in slow motion, but it’s been deliberate: a way of life, an entire culture has been wiped out, and people are wandering around (metaphorically) in a daze, unsure of what comes next.
Brothers Toby (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond, The Finest Hours) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster: Warcraft, The Program), ranchers in West Texas, are doing their damnedest to find a path through the disaster, and to stick it to those who’ve brought hell down upon them. Theirs is a world in which the law and justice no longer coincide, in which those in power have little moral authority, in which there is one set of rules for the powerful and another for the weak. The long opening shot of the film sets the stage: in a dusty dying small town, graffiti has been painted in the side of a bank that reads “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” And then we watch Toby and Tanner swoop in and rob that bank. It’s difficult not to cheer them.
The brothers aren’t exactly Robin Hoods, but they’re not exactly villains, either. (Tanner is a bit of loose cannon, and has served time for a violent crime, but there are hints that there were secret justifications for that, too, that few people would argue with.) They are targeting one particular local bank, robbing only its branches, because that bank has cheated their family out of their ranch, and just as oil was discovered on their land, in a way that was wholly legal. There is method to their madness, and it has to do with serving up revenge cold.
Director David Mackenzie — who made the devastating prison drama Starred Up — and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan — with his second script after the savage war-on-drugs thriller Sicario — give us plenty of heist-movie-style humor and suspense. (I’m not entirely sure whether every step of the brothers’ multipronged robbery and money-laundering scheme would actually work, but it’s certainly gripping in a step-by-daring-step way.) But as the filmmakers’ previous work indicates, they are more interested in brutal reality than popcorn escapism… and there haven’t been too many movies this year as grounded in reality as Hell or High Water is. The film drips with depressing reminders of the hell and high water that has already come: spear-carrier characters in passing gripe about the unfair economic hardships they face; the only well-maintained things in these rundown Texas tumbleweed towns are the billboards offering payday loans and debt relief. Hell sings — in a bleak minor key aided by the marvelous score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — of a fatalism that promises no happy endings; as Tanner sighs at one point, “Nobody gets away with anything,” and the palpable chemistry between Pine and Foster, who are both terrific here, feels mostly like a joint resignation to miserable necessity. Mackenzie, who is English, brings an outsider’s perspective that takes this insular realm of southern American ranching and farming, and how it is being killed off, and tacks it onto that lost-at-sea feeling that seems to pervade the entire zeitgeist at the moment that what’s right and what’s wrong have been turned upside down, and there seems to be no way to fix it. (Mackenzie also, in one scene, has a blackly humorous jaundiced eye for Texas’s open-carry gun culture.)
If there’s hope to be found here, it’s not in Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, although Jeff Bridges’ (Seventh Son, The Giver) performance as the crotchety cop investigating the bank robberies might be his best ever. He seems like one of the genuinely good guys, a man of authority who also seeks true justice… though his ethnically charged barbs at his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham: The Lone Ranger, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1), aren’t as funny as he thinks they are. But Hamilton is about to retire; at best, whatever kind of decent he may be, he’s on his way out. But in philosophical conversations with Parker, who is part Native American, they come to the conclusion that what is happening to people like the Howard brothers is just an echo of the past: banks are now taking land from white people the way that white people took land away from Native Americans. The undercurrent of Hell or High Water seems to suggest that now that it’s white people being treated unfairly en masse, maybe this will finally prompt a cultural readjustment.
That’s not much help at the moment, though. Like the Howard boys, we don’t have much time left to wait.