Toby Howard and Tanner Howard are two down-on-their-luck brothers living in West Texas. They were born into poverty and recently their mother died, leaving them a ranch and debts. Tony (Chris Pine) is out of work. Tanner (Ben Foster) has been out of prison for almost a year and is looking for some excitement. The pair have taken to robbing branches of the Texas Midlands Bank.
The raids are quick and the amounts are unusual. The case arrives at the desk of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). He and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) search for the pattern. There’s something about these heists that doesn’t fit the sort of crimes they usually see. Hamilton is a curious man and he wants answers.
HELL OR HIGH WATER is a bare-bones crime drama. The narrative is pared right back. The Howard boys are life’s losers living in a place where money and good times are in short supply. As they drive through the dusty country between bank heists, it’s clear that nothing is thriving in this land. The brothers don’t talk much, but when they do, it’s mostly Tanner getting on Toby’s nerves. Toby is clever, cautious and beaten down. Tanner is both physically larger and a bigger character in every way. It’s easy to see how he ended up doing jail time. Boredom is his problem.
Rangers Hamilton and Birmingham are close to retirement. Hamilton likes to take digs at Birmingham who’s learnt not to react. We’re not sure if these men are friends or reluctant colleagues. The Rangers are chasing the Howards methodically. They are confident of eventually apprehending them.
Between the bursts of well-mounted action, we have time to understand the four characters at the heart of this tale. We are given glimpses into the lives of these men, set against the long shadows of the past; the present is hard and the scars of history are everywhere.
Chris Pine does a solid turn as a man who feels he has been held down for a lifetime. For audiences who know him better as the modern-day Captain Kirk, this role will be something of an eye opener. Ben Foster, who is probably best known for the role of Angel in X-MEN LAST STAND (2006), does some of his finest work on screen with the role of Tanner. He often plays annoyingly twitchy criminals as in THE MECHANIC (2011), but here he shows us the likeable side to a character who is impulsive and dangerous. Gil Birmingham as Parker will be recognisable to many for the TWILIGHT films. He is the cool head of the Ranger duo. Jeff Bridges’s Hamilton quite deliberately echoes his Rooster Cogburn from the Coen Brothers 2010 remake of TRUE GRIT (and shares some DNA with Roy Pulsipher in 2013’s RIPD). He has cornered the market on crusty Western lawmen in recent years.
Mackenzie has crafted an excellent crime drama, aided greatly by some top-shelf writing (from Taylor Sheridan) and performances. HELL OR HIGH WATER has a classic feel, it could have been adapted from an Anthony Mann Western of the 1950s, but it has plenty to say about the present day. 102 minutes. (8/10)