Review: In ‘HELL OR HIGH WATER,’ Empathy Reigns

A recognizably human story on the West Texas plains.

I’ve been poor my whole life. It’s like a disease, passing from generation to generation.

–Toby Howard

I try (I really do try!) to limit how I let my politics bleed into my reviews here, but at the same time, you can only really experience a movie through the prism of your own worldview. What do you find funny, or entertaining? What tugs at your heartstrings? What do you find morally defensible, or indefensible? Many of cinema’s great artworks find a way to challenge your perspective. To get you to identify with characters you wouldn’t get along with in real life. To see a people group, or a moment in history, through a different lens.

So I begin by admitting to you that as a bleeding-heart liberal, I’ve sometimes recognized in myself a shocking lack of interest or understanding of the people of my native state, Texas. If you’re not from here, just that name probably conjures images of cattle and cowboys and guns and Gadsden flags and churches and bad history textbooks and a backwards-looking population ready to secede at the drop of a Stetson. If you have lived here, you know that, like everything is, Texas is more complex and varied than just those ideas, and doesn’t own the monopoly on them.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped me from reacting with an “ugh, Texas” whenever we make the news for bigotry, injustice, or stupidity. I watch footage of a certain Presidential candidate’s local rallies, even in a blue bastion like Austin, and I feel entirely removed from whatever the attendees are struggling with, and why they’re desperate, and why some believe they have no choice but to take all the negative energy they’ve absorbed in their lives and direct it back outward.

I don’t know if Hell or High Water, the new modern western from English director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) was intended from its inception to be so of-the-moment, so specifically tied to the swirling anxieties of 2016. It’s not about immigration, race, or terrorism, or any specific policy. But what it does capture is the economic hopelessness felt in hundreds of small towns all across the country.

In the film’s opening shot, we spot a grafitto that reads “3 TOURS IN IRAQ, BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” Highways are peppered with billboards advertising debt relief. The scrublands look like they haven’t seen rain in months, if ever. It’s as if, with no single administration or law to blame, the world has simply moved on and left these people behind. At one point in the film, a rancher struggles moving his herd out of the path of a brush fire and bitterly remarks, “And I wonder why my kids don’t want to do this shit for a living.”


The Howard brothers are feeling that same kind of pressure. As far as plot goes, Hell or High Water is nothing spectacular: divorced father Toby (Chris Pine) enlists his older brother Tanner, a hot-headed felon (Ben Foster) to rob a string of banks. Like Jean Valjean, they do it for a “good reason”: they have less than a week to pay off the mortgage on their late mother’s land or they lose it forever. Toby, a decent and self-sacrificial man, is doing it for his kids. Tanner is doing it because he cares about his brother, but mostly because it’s fun.

The ironic twist, and what nearly-retired Texas Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) spends half the movie working out, is that the Howards’ plan is to pay the predatory West Midlands bank back with its own money. That limits their potential targets, but earns the fascination of locals who can’t help but chuckle at the boys robbing, as one man puts it, “the same bank that been robbin’ me for 20 years.” The story unfolds both as a ticking-clock heist film and as a more meditative exploration of rural poverty. For a while, it’s actually kind of fun. And then the brothers’ discipline starts to slip, Hamilton catches their scent, and you’re powerless to look away from the oncoming train.

The three leads are all brilliant. Foster, one of the finest actors of his generation, shone in the similarly-themed 3:10 to Yuma as Russell Crowe’s lieutenant. He brings that same ferocity, tinged with black humor, to his role as Tanner. The reckless ex-con isn’t the most developed character of the trio, but Foster plays up Tanner’s reckless unpredictability in his body language and a perpetually buzzed comedic timing.

As the quieter, smarter, and more decent Toby, Chris Pine gives the best performance of his career, pivoting away from the swaggering heroics of Star Trek and the self-deprecation of Into the Woods for something more internalized and multifaceted. He brings his voice down into his lower register, and affects a drawl every bit as convincing as Foster’s. The older brother’s eyes blaze with feral intensity, but Pine’s are wide open, assessing every action and whether he’ll be able to live with himself afterwards. The afterthought in the Great Chris Debate of recent summers, with Pratt, Evans, and Hemsworth soaring in popularity, Pine may turn out to be the best pure actor of the group.

Jeff Bridges’ Harrison seems at first like a retread of Rooster Cogburn, with every line delivered as through a mouth full of cotton, but the Ranger isn’t quite so pig-headed nor as mythic in scale. His only real flaw seems to be in the merciless ribbing of his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who seems to only put up with it because Harrison takes as well as he gives, and is just weeks from retirement anyway.


But in their conversations — and there are a lot of them; this isn’t really an Action Western — they hit at thorny issues like economic unrest, open carry laws (which, um, complicate things for our robbers), and just who the land should belong to, anyway. I wouldn’t quite call it “preachy” because the perspectives are varied, but when even a Comanche Tanner crosses paths with in a casino gets a moment to muse on generational bygones, it’s clear Hell or High Water has bigger ideas on its mind, and many in the audience may not be expecting that.

MacKenzie and Sheridan also look for moments of weirdly Texas specificity, from the televangelists to the broadly-drawn waitresses to the not-uncommon frustration when you drive into Oklahoma and gas stations offer Mr. Pibb but not Dr. Pepper. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography starkly captures the deterioration of these towns as well as the vast emptiness of the lands between them, but it’s the unexpected moments, like when MacKenzie has Pine and Foster improvise a bit of horsing around at magic hour, that are the most memorable. The score, from Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, avoids Western clichés in focusing more on a darkening mood than traditional melody.

The Howards are never very confident their plan will work, or that they’ll both make it out if it does: “I never knew nobody that got away with anything,” Tanner warns his brother. Toby’s ex-wife can’t stand him, and his oldest son wonders what he would do with a ranch, anyway. All Toby wants to give them is the stability he’s never known. And it’s that innate relatability, a window into a life of promises broken by corrupt institutions, that elevates Hell or High Water into something much more than a cops & robbers drama. Its biggest surprise, and its biggest success, is how you can’t help but absorb its clear empathy for its characters, and walk out realizing that you can give it in real life, too.

Grade: A-

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *