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Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull up early one morning at a couple of Texas Midland banks, robbing them of only loose cash in the registers–fives, tens, twenties only; No bundles, no big denominations. Tanner is brash, hostile and itching for violence while Toby is apologetic in the process, almost kind to the people staring at the barrel end of his pistol. What seems like amateur efforts by two inept thieves soon comes to make sense though when we learn that they are targeting these specific banks for a reason. Texas Midland, operating under some deceptive although legit practices foreclosed on their family ranch, which has more than just nostalgic appeal to the boys. Now they have a plan to turn that around.
First, go for small money, avoid dye-packs and federal investigative entanglements and use the cash to pay back the mortgage, essentially having the bank pay the debt for them. And it works, at first. The FBI isn’t interested in small time crimes and the local police think the thieves are simply spur-of-the moment robberies by some disorganized rednecks trying to nab a few thousand bucks. That is, everyone except Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who thinks he sees something more in the heists. His younger partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) agrees and the two develop a kind respect for the robbers and their unique approach, although they are a decidedly odd pair themselves.
Hamilton finds some thrills in trying to outsmart the unknown robbers, and indeed when the brothers make a mistake as Tanner can’t help himself and robs one bank on his own, he leaves behind enough clues for Hamilton to start truly piecing it together. This rattles Toby’s original scheme and because so, leads to a devastating conflict.
Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, whose screenplay debut for last year’s Sicario earned him heaps of (deserved) praise, Hell Or High Water isn’t trying to mask its message in anything but conventional big-banks-are-bad cinema tropes, but it also manages to give it a fresh spin, especially when compared to the glut of recent heist movies that seem more intent on flashy and exceedingly complex robberies that do little more than take up lots of screen time. Toby and Tanner’s in-an-out low-take hauls feel decidedly more authentic and have just as much, if not more, suspense. That’s doubly so given the explosive nature of Tanner that is evident right from the first frames.
That’s not to say Toby is a lightweight in any of this. We see some outbursts in him as well that provide some shocks, and reveal that these boys are not good people despite their ambitions (and our sympathies). Violence does have its place here of course, but there are also long stretches where things slow down and Mackenzie tries to give these characters, especially Hamilton, some time to grow. Thanks to a smart script that mostly rings true, these moments work well, as do the performances with the undervalued Birmignham excellent and naturally, Bridges taking this to the next level. He does what most his age do not, in a generation of male actors who seem to be stuck in nostalgic tarpits, taking parts that endlessly callback to their decades-old successes. Bridges instead seems content to embrace his weathered face and older status as attributes rather than hindrance and continues to create dignified characters that entertain and enlighten.
But this show is all Pine and Foster who both do some of their best work, even if the script ends up letting them down a bit in the finale. Foster gives an unnerving performance as a troubled young man with ten years in jail behind him. Pine is especially good, breaking free of the leading man shackles that have defined his career. Watching him throughout, you get a sense that this was something he really wanted, maybe needed, to do. It puts him in a whole new circle.
Hell Or High Water is a solid action film that has a certain familiarity to it as it all plays out, borrowing from others as it wanders away from its great start. Led by a great cast and good direction, there is a lot here to make this well worth a look, if only it had pushed to be a bit more original, it could have been great.
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges
Genre: Action, Thriller