Blending the Western, heist, crime and cultural drama genres, “Hell or High Water” is an interesting, if not earth-shattering, film about life in rural Texas. Made for our times, the film suggests that there is no real line between good and evil, just the will to survive and to try and uphold your morals doing it.
Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, the film follows two sets of duos: robbers and brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and the marshalls following them, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). When his mother’s land is about to be foreclosed on after her death, Toby is out of options. He recruits his sadistic brother Tanner to rob a set of smaller banks in order to raise up the funds to pass the land on to his kids. Marshall Marcus is just on the edge of retirement, looking to make the investigation into Toby and Tanner last as long as he can. His partner, Alberto, is the butt end of his neverending jokes about his Native American and Mexican heritage.
A consistent theme of the film are the boiling tensions between people whether for financial, religious or racial reasons. Whether it’s Tanner hating on Mexicans, Marcus joking about Alberto’s heritage or Toby despising the banks and what they’ve taken from him, the environment of the film is set up as take or be taken. The Native Americans lost their land to the white man, the white man lost it to the banks. In this respect, what the brothers do is simply a necessity, blurring that distinction between good and evil. Though Tanner eventually crosses a line that makes his actions indefensible, does the fact that Toby started their enterprise make him just as responsible? And for Marcus, what is to be done now that his career is coming to an end? What has he accomplished? What can he still?
The film is full of ethical questions such as these that are never truly resolved, letting the viewer decipher for themselves their own conclusions. It utilizes the harsh Texas environment as its own character in the film, something so rugged yet valuable, something worthwhile to steal because of heritage and the promise of the future.
The true strength of the film is the buildup, letting the characters and their moments establish the film’s rhythm and beats. By the end, the viewer feels like they really understand each of them and the events that transpire are both moral and tragic.
While it is nothing especially new, “Hell of High Water” is a film for the current time and executed very well; the acting, writing, directing, cinematography are all top notch. It is a strong story.