“Hell or High Water” harkens the mind back to the more rousing qualities of a handful of famous movies about outlaws: the vigilante justice of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the desolate backdrops of “No Country for Old Men,” the simple plan-gone-chaotic in “Fargo,” and even the empathetic gray areas of “Thelma and Louise.” But unlike a plethora of second-rate imitators, it is far more than the sum of its narrative devices – a real film, full of wit and insight, and carried by actors that rise above the pointedness of their dialogue to discover something profound within their limited ideologies. In their own ways they are functioning based on the hands they have been dealt, which supplies the audience with interesting moral ramifications: do you excuse the antics of the main characters because of their situations, or must we move in lockstep with conventional rules that demand justice against their troubling crimes? They key to that answer lies in the details, in which stories of past tragedies and troubled trajectories suggest only one path forward for anyone involved. We meet them in a moment where no other scenario exists beyond desperation.
The brothers are played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who in between illegal heists spend a great deal of time exchanging muted passages of rather candid personal experiences. Toby (Pine) is a former oil field worker estranged from an ex-wife and two sons, and Tanner (Foster) is recently free from a prison sentence for a laundry list of violent crimes. Their union as unlikely mutual outlaws emerges in the aftermath of the death of their mother, who owned a ranch on the verge of foreclosure unless a sum of $43 thousand is paid in full to the bank. That reality establishes the motive of their robberies, but not until later does the underlying importance of their deed come to light: oil has been discovered on the property, and losing it would undermine the potential financial endurance of Toby’s sons, whom he hopes to leave it all to in a last-ditch attempt to make amends. Their predicaments are molded in the classic scenario of troubled good guys seeking redemption, but they are not written in the echo chamber of warped personal logic; as observers we sense a certain practicality to their agenda, which proves to be daunting once the proverbial good guys begin to inspire just as much admiration.
Who you route for – assuming you take a side at all – may come down to the personal experiences you bring to the table, and how they correlate to the trajectories of the four leads. But to assume that David Mackenzie’s very perceptive descent is simply about the sides we fall on undermines what we might discover in these frames: namely, the possibility that systems are not so much designed to keep things black and white as they are instituted to shamelessly destroy the more prominent gray areas. No legal establishment has ever been immune from damaging records, and no criminal mind is so absolute as to be distant from intellectual empathy. At a certain point these details drift into the periphery because the screenplay needs them to; in a world closed off by desperate behaviors, it becomes necessary for us to simply join in on the journeys and observe what motivates them, regardless of the conscious considerations we want to attach. Mackenzie certainly works from a long tradition of westerns and crime-oriented dramas to create this cerebral odyssey, but rarely in recent times has it reached so pointedly for the guts of the matter. When a key character is gunned down unexpectedly in a moment during the climax, what you think of the players doesn’t inform the reaction. It is an utterly harrowing moment that feels like a kick to the face for all those who observe.
The performances, of course, add weight to the observations. Foster in particular, playing a troubled soul with no qualms about shooting first, is riveting as Tanner, and the dialogue he is supplied is delivered with a conviction of finesse that makes him just as charming as he is dangerous. Pine, by contrast, supplements that with a calm and cautious portrayal of his own, and even in the obligatory confrontation scenes – including a great one with a son who cares not to have anything to do with him – he holds his ground convincingly, like a silent outlaw well-versed in pending standoffs. The understated Gil Birmingham does a tremendous job at playing a ranger who is just as annoyed by the borderline racism of his partner as he is by the uncertainty of the case, and Bridges, always in top form, builds on the momentum of “Crazy Heart” and “True Grit” by pitching curve balls under the influence of sardonic euphemisms. Somehow, in the thick of a plot where we should regard events with some level of disdain or affection, each of these characters become thoroughly accessible.
The gravity of their situations is no less significant, to be sure, and even when we chuckle at the shrewd punches of humor there is always a sense of discomfort underlining the scenes, but no one who walks away from “Hell or High Water” is being asked to experience a straightforward reaction. Like its characters, here is a screenplay thriving substantially on the ambiguity of its own moral ground, without the ham-handed hogwash of last-minute apologies or neat endings to leave you with closure. We sit forward eagerly as the events transpire with the precision of a perfect crime thriller, marvel at the complexity of the personalities and sit back as they wash over us in a torrent of puzzling emotions. Mackenzie, who also directed the controversial “Starred Up,” is not solely interested in knowing why people do they things they do, or what drives them there; he has made a movie about people who believe in certain sacrifices to protect what is theirs, and law is the overreaching system that exists only to challenge the probability of a fair fate. All the obligatory chases and shootouts are there, and even the cold hard assessment by the legal smart-mouths dot the action like the most traditional of these pictures. The difference, thankfully, is that they are in the service of something deep enough to contemplate long after the screen has gone black.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Crime/Drama (US); 2016; Rated R; Running Time: 102 Minutes
Chris Pine: Toby Howard
Ben Foster: Tanner Howard
Jeff Bridges: Marcus Hamilton
Gil Birmingham: Alberto Parker
Katy Mixon: Jenny Ann
Produced by Braden Aftergood, Peter Berg, Kathryn Dean, Carla Hacken, Sidney Kimmel, Bill Lischak, Mark Mikutowicz, Michael Nathanson, John Penotti, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Dylan Tarason, Bruce Toll, and Julie Yorn; Directed by David Mackenzie; Written by Taylor Sheridan