Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay for Sicario and he seemed to have an uncanny ability to dish out hair-pulling tension through cliché scenes seen a million times. With Hell or High Water, he proved he is no fluke, and it is a better film than Sicario on so many levels. The story couldn’t be more simple…
Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), rob banks. Hot on their heels are two Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is on the last leg of his job before retirement and his Native American partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
The film involves elements of a crime thriller and the chase but it is essentially character studies of not one but two pairs of mismatched relationships. Their arcs intertwined so seamlessly that I wasn’t just rooting for the brothers to get away, I was also hoping the Rangers catch them! I can’t remember the last time I was rooting for both polar-opposite gun-toting parties in a movie. How the film succeeds in being different with familiar characters is one of its awesome move-sets (sorry, I am still in Pokémon Go mindset :)). It does it by giving them divine purposes which I will not divulge, but I will just say this is in the territory of The Big Short all over again where the banks are the biggest robbers of hardworking folks in the sun-drenched land of West Texas.
The film is a masterful meditation and evocation of time, place, character, moral stakes, immoral choices and brotherly love. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis fits the ambience to a T and is startlingly emotive, stark and melancholic. The dialogue is stellar, at times it is the silent spaces between words that speak louder. The banter is confident and many times darkly funny. Just listen and marvel at Marcus’ constant racist jibes at his partner. The simple return by Alberto would be a punch to Marcus’ face but no, we get an occasional return uppercut jibe back at Marcus’ ignorance. The dialogue between the two of them feels lived-in. These are two buddies who have probably worked together longer than their marriages and they can take each other’s nonsense because they can see through the racism to the weakness. On the other hand, Toby and Tanner’s bond is drawn through contrast. Tanner is hell-bent on violence and can’t seem to stand out of trouble, but he is always mindful of his brother’s objective and in the end he shows what it means to lay down your life for your brother. All the nuanced and textured performances are stirring, none more so than Chris Pine’s. Goodness me, I have seen him in so many movies but I be hard-pressed to say that he can actually act beyond having that handsome mien and melting blue eyes. But here Pine shows his surprising range with his grizzled and laconic look. It is a role he nails it with perfection. This is a big step-up to a new level for him that I never knew possible.
Talking about the four main characters, I have to mention a minor one that is so great I am sure where she is now she will probably be a cult figure from on out. Watch out for a scene in the only restaurant in a small washed-out town as a waitress takes the order from the two Rangers. Her first line is “alright, what do you NOT want?” I laughed so hard my sides hurt. Her execution of the barrage of words is perfect and the reaction from the two unsuspecting Rangers priceless.
This is one of those rare films that the moment it is over you begin to wonder what will happen to the characters and you would wish so hard the scene would just continue. No, it isn’t an open ending. Every character experiences their closure but you will love and pity them so much that they will continue to live in your consciousness. This is a gem of a movie.
4 / 5