David Mackenzie’s terrifically tense Western Hell or High Water is set in the present, but it keeps emphasizing that in some key ways, life hasn’t changed in West Texas since pioneer days. One old-timer hitches up his horse at a gas station as if he was hitting up the local saloon in some dusty frontier town. Another rider, herding cattle ahead of a raging prairie fire, pauses to openly marvel that he’s still doing this in the 21st century. A Texas Ranger makes a convincing case comparing the predatory lending habits and subsequent foreclosures of West Texas banks to the Army forcibly pushing Native Americans off their land. And at one point, it becomes clear that half the men in the region carry concealed weapons, and they’re willing to form an old-fashioned posse for a high-speed chase on a moment’s notice.
The attitude toward guns, steers, and land aren’t the only parts of Hell or High Water that draw an unbroken line back to the Old West. The characters’ macho codes are just as old-school and unspoken. Bank-robbing brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are a modern version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with just as little need to talk about why they do what they do. Even at their most frustrated and fractious, they have a silent devotion for each other, and they guard each other’s backs. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), the aging Ranger chasing the Howard brothers, similarly has a bluff, blunt relationship with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Their banter seems to border on enmity: Marcus makes consciously racist jokes about Alberto’s Mexican / Native American heritage, and Alberto answers with snide commentary about Marcus’ impending forced retirement and probable looming death. Marcus’ ugly teasing hides softer emotions. Alberto may not be so respectful, or so forgiving. But the two men are still partners, and they work together without reserve when it counts.
But while Hell or High Water deals with stick-ups and gunfighters, it’s still a modern thriller. In their parched homeland, dotted by rusted-out tractors and sun-bleached billboards for debt relief and fast-cash loans, Toby and Tanner rob banks as a way out of poverty. The film takes its time in laying out the full scope of their scheme, but it establishes up front that they’re uncomfortable partners: Tanner is a serial convict, in and out of jail for crimes including armed robbery, while Toby is the longtime good kid with an estranged family to support. Together, the Howards are simultaneously ruthless, efficient, and careful. But they aren’t proof against unanticipated security measures, Tanner’s impulsiveness, or Marcus’ experience and insight into their upcoming moves. The film stretches out in a classic-Western sprawl, taking its time to establish the characters and not rushing to get where it’s going. Still, there’s tremendous tension in the question of the Howard brothers’ motivations, and whether good intentions and a mildly righteous cause will get them anywhere in such an unforgiving landscape.
Director David Mackenzie worked from a script by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, but he’s in familiar territory here, even as he switches genres yet again. His other films — the powerful Irish prison drama Starred Up, the science fiction romance Perfect Sense, the Ewan McGregor / Tilda Swinton mystery-drama Young Adam — similarly explore passionate but muted relationships, and the conflict between self-interest and sacrifice, especially among people too solemn and self-contained to talk through their feelings. In Mackenzie’s films, the macho need to create and sustain a personal image at any cost, keeps cropping up and complicating characters’ attempts to get what they want. In this case, Tanner sees himself as an outlaw and a Native American warrior, in spite of his Caucasian heritage. His ferocious self-mythologizing crops up again and again, as he baits and confronts an actual Native American in a casino, or crows to his brother after one heist, “We’re like the Comanche, little brother, raiding where we please!”
Racial identity and the history of the West are both part of the complex backdrop Sheridan uses to highlight the Howards’ situation, but Hell or High Water keeps its story and images stark and straightforward. This is a beautifully shot film, and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (also Mackenzie’s partner on Young Adam, Asylum, Hallam Foe, and the swoony, sensual Perfect Sense) makes West Texas’ run-down towns and naked rocky plains look tragic and lonely. In his lens, Pine and Foster are as hard and enduring as the landscape. A witness to one of their crimes describes them both as “lean like cowboys,” which more or less sums up the whole film: there isn’t a wasted moment here. It’s taut and driven, focused on establishing a mournful tone and building up to a series of regrets that will claim the entire cast. Music by Nick Cave and his longtime musical partner Warren Ellis helps immensely.
In that sense, Hell or High Water is sharply similar to the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, but with a more conclusive ending. Toby is the Josh Brolin character, looking for a break he feels he’s earned. Bridges is the Tommy Lee Jones equivalent, a lawman well past his era, but still hanging on to the myth of fighting outlaws, just as Tanner hangs onto the myth of being one. Marcus and Tanner are both familiar cinematic hero types, on opposite ends of the do-gooder spectrum, and Mackenzie doesn’t flinch from the strain of putting them both in the same film, and letting audiences decide which is the protagonist and the true romantic ideal, or whether either of them are. The recent Suicide Squad is supposedly about supervillains forced to do good, even if it means sacrificing themselves to a cause they don’t believe in. But Mackenzie’s film has much more to say about the outlaw urge, and what it means to be a criminal for a cause, or to make positive choices that take selfish, self-destructive forms. Toby and Tanner are just as unwillingly compelled toward crime as the Suicide Squad is compelled toward heroism. But the Howard brothers’ moral dilemma, or lack thereof, is much clearer and stronger, and Mackenzie takes the time to justify all their moves and make them matter.
For all the methodical pacing and old archetypes, Hell or High Water is a thoroughly contemporary action film, complete with fast chases and flashes of dark comedy. But like the classic Westerns, it invites viewers to evaluate, one more time, the myth of the American outlaw, and the idea of criminals as heroes. Foster and Pine pull off their roles perfectly — Pine in particular seems to be channeling a young Burt Reynolds — and their charisma is compelling. But so is Bridges’ seamy wisdom and deep-seated desire to be useful and active, even with forced retirement looming. Mackenzie winds up suggesting that both sides of the law have their justifications and their heroes. And even if they aren’t both equally valid, they both have their rewards and their place in a complicated world.
The original Westerns are so often about cowboys and Indians, black hats and white hats, and simple lines drawn in the sand. The revisionist Westerns that followed invited viewers to question everything about who drew those lines, and why. And their modern followers, like Mackenzie’s, are even more haunting and complicated. They speak to how much things have changed in America over the last century and a half, and how much hasn’t changed at all. But where No Country offered no hope for the future, Hell or High Water at least allows a little light with the darkness. The film is brave enough to challenge viewers’ expectations. But it’s even braver in that it doesn’t just ask the grim No Country questions — it actually suggests a few answers as well.