Hell or High Water, a film by David MacKenzie, written by Taylor Sheridan. With Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine, Ben Foster. *****
Sometimes people take a genre movie, which has elements that many movies have, and take it to a whole new level. Sometimes that movie is overlooked for that very reason. Hell or High Water looks like several kinds of genre movie, and it’s about one of our country’s forgotten groups, the poor farmers of West Texas. But it’s a great movie, brilliantly written, directed, and acted. It even has great music. It’s the most moving film I’ve seen this year.
It is not a crime caper movie, a chase movie, a buddy movie, or some lighthearted flick, as this review in the Times led me to believe. It’s an emotionally wrenching movie about hardscrabble lives in West Texas, where a couple of brothers rob banks because the banks have been robbing them. It revolves around the magnificent performance of Jeff Bridges, who has reached a stage in his career where he can do almost anything. He inhabits the character of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton as easily as Hamilton, a genial, relaxed whimsical man who nevertheless does his job, inhabits the world. He’s one of the most memorable characters in recent memory.
Hamilton is accompanied by Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a “half-breed” who is part Comanche and part Mexican. He takes Hamilton’s xenophobic banter—the kind of thing men do everywhere—in the spirit in which it’s given, but he’s not smiling. He’s adapted to Texas but not happily. “All this,” he says at one point, “was my ancestors’ land, until these folks took it. And now it’s being taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doin’ it. It’s those sons of bitches right there.” He points to a Texas Midland Bank.
The two men are sitting in front of the bank because Texas Midland branches are being systematically robbed by a couple of men who seem new to this kind of crime. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has been in prison, but that was because he killed his father in a “hunting accident.” “I wonder what he was hunting in that barn where he shot him,” one of the Rangers says. His brother Toby (Chris Pine) has no record at all, but was raised by the same abusive father as Tanner. Toby is the mastermind behind these robberies, and he does have a plan: take only the cash from the tellers drawers, because it isn’t marked; strike early in the morning, before anyone is there; don’t hurt anybody or cause a scene. From the start his plans go awry, partly because he can’t control his brother.
It seems that Tanner took the brunt of the abuse from the boys’ father. He’s wild and crazy—seems to like robbing banks because it’s so transgressive—also just plain mean: in their first robbery, he whacks the bank manager with the butt of his gun when there was no reason to. He’s an aggressive angry loose cannon, a man who doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies. He may actually want to die. He loves his brother and wants him to succeed, but doesn’t seem able to control himself.
Toby’s presence is just as menacing in a way, but it’s quiet and seething and brooding. There’s a failed marriage in his past, and he’s haunted that he left his two boys with their mother and can’t do much for them. He also took care of his own mother in her final illness, though she too was a difficult parent. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t beat us over the head with these details; he just hints at what put Toby in his present fix.
His mother had taken out a reverse mortgage on her land, and it’s stacked in the bank’s favor. The only thing Toby can do is pay it off in full. Hence these robberies, and an auxiliary part of the plan: he takes the small bills to a casino, where he buys chips and pretend to be gambling when really he’s just biding his time (Tanner goes off and does some gambling, abrasively as always). He then cashes in his chips, gets a little cash, and has the casino make out a large check to the bank. His first three robberies cover a major part of the payment. He needs to do just one more.
It’s that one more that’s always a problem.
Toby gets the best single speech in the movie, after everything is over, when he’s talking to Hamilton about what happened. “I’ve been poor all my life. It’s like a disease passed from generation to generation. But not my boys. Not anymore.” He was a decent man doing a bad thing for a good reason. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. He’s guilty—as I once heard a Quaker say—of “a fallacious distinction between the ends and the means.” He’ll be haunted by what he’s done—as Hamilton says—for the rest of his life.
Toby seems in his own way to be as consumed by rage as his brother. We see that in a scene where a young tough challenges Tanner at a gas station, for no good reason. Toby rather ferociously takes care of the situation. It’s probably the most frightening single scene in the movie.
I’ll remember this movie largely for its small touches and out of the way scenes, Toby talking to a sweet but rather hefty waitress at a diner, a hooker trying to pick him up at the casino, a conversation he has with his teenage son (who walks into the house and sees him, then turns around and walks right out again), a conversation Hamilton has with some bystanders at the same diner, and of course a scene with a crazy waitress at a steak house. “Except for one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout. We ain’t got no goddamned trout.”
But finally the movie belongs to Bridges. Hamilton understands what these guys are doing. He understands the sadness of the situation, the way people are being systematically ruined by the banks. It is nevertheless his job to uphold the law, and though he loves his easy banter—“This is what you’re going to remember after I’m gone,” he says to his partner—he’s fiercely loyal to him. I won’t ruin the movie’s suspense by even hinting at what happens in the second half. Everyone stays entirely in character. And when Hamilton lets out a brief stifled sob at one point—it almost sounds like a laugh, it’s so startling—it breaks our hearts. This movie breaks our hearts. It’s meant to.
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