Reminiscent of “Unforgiven” and “No Country For Old Men,” this gritty, contemporary Western, set in West Texas, focuses on the Howard brothers, who concoct a plan to wreak revenge on the greedy bank that swindled their dying mother out of her land. Brooding divorced dad Toby (Chris Pine) is determined that his two sons inherit the oil-rich family acreage which is under threat of foreclosure. So he turns to his sociopathic, ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) for help. Read on…
Toby devises a clever plan to rob several small small-town branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, then launder the money through an Indian-run casino, just over the state line in Oklahoma. With untraceable casino checks made out to Texas Midlands Bank, he can settle their debt.
Wearing hoodies and ski-masks, Toby and Tanner start the early-morning heists. But that draws the attention of acerbic, about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who slyly surmises that these aren’t your usual bank robbers, not meth-heads or sociopaths, since they take only small denomination bills from the cash drawers.
“I may have one hunt left in me,” he tells his laconic Mexican/Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Realistically written with an ambiguous morality by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), astutely directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam,” “Starred Up”), it’s an irony-riddled, character-driven drama, authentically set amid foreboding billboards promising debt relief, magnificently photographed by Giles Nuttgens.
While Pine propels the complex, emotionally engaging plot, Foster projects pervasively dangerous volatility. Exuding almost-paternal patience in his pursuit of the outlaws, Bridges affectionately engages Birmingham with relentless racist teasing.
Even bit players have full-realized roles, like the waitresses played by Katy Mixon, Debrianna Mansini, and Margaret Bowman. And the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis evokes pervasive melancholy.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hell or High Water” is an exciting 8, moving toward its enigmatic, yet inevitable Lone Star conclusion.