‘Hell or High Water’ tells tale with economy, smarts

Rare is the movie released by a studio, even a so-called minor major studio like CBS Films, that draws on populist anger. In Hell or High Water abandoned oil fields and decrepit public spaces in dying towns dot the wastes of west Texas. “No wonder mah kids won’t do this shit for a livin’,” a cattle herder tells ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Billboards announcing “Fast Cash!” and “In Debt?” sprout like sagebrush from the dust. The mother of Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard succumbed to the allure of a reverse mortgage; the boys were stuck with the debt and the back taxes on her death. Because this is Texas, home of the concealed weapons permit, every man’s packin’ heat and possibly every woman (those who aren’t pack a forked tongue, like an ancient waitress who sasses Marcus at the T-Bone Restaurant in Poke). Although the recession has ended for anyone still lucky enough to belong to the middle class, those stuck in towns like Poke are the victims of decades of neglect and parasitical banks.

If Hell or High Water sounds like a return to those Depression-era movies in which The Bank was represented by a rangy man with a mustache threatenin’ to foreclose the mortgage, just wait until the last ten minutes. Tanner may be the wild man who loves robbing banks and drinking beer for the hell of it, but Toby’s motives become clearer the further David Mackenzie’s picture goes: he wants to do his kids right by paying the debts on his mom’s ranch and bequeathing them the property.

A heist picture with an overdetermined and often pedantic social conscience, Hell or High Water is a solid movie with good performances. I can’t say we critics have exaggerated its virtues because when it opened in mid August — a period as dessicated as those Texas plains — no one expected the movie to become a — in 2016! — sleeper hit. In the summer of Independence Day: Resurgence and aBen-Hur remake seen by the entire town of Poke, Hell or High Water qualifies as adult entertainment.

A veteran of bank robberies who served time, Tanner is the hellcat, and the way Ben Foster plays him he’s rarin’ to go at all times. Even when drinking beer on a porch his mind has jumped two counties over, thinking of the next job. Toby, quieter and with a clean record, keeps the reins on when possible. Hitting two branches of Texas Midland Bank soups up their confidence; they’re turned on, Tanner especially, by how smart they played those hits: skimming smaller bills from the top, exposing not a single millimeter of skin, choosing branches with deplorable or outdated surveillance system (the second branch they hit still uses VHS tapes). They’re even smarter about spending their money. At a casino in Oklahoma Tanner gambles just enough for a room and a car to replace the one they buried in twenty feet of gravel (he’s so tickled that he scores with a front desk clerk). A crime’s a crime, though, and that’s when Ranger Hamilton enters the picture. Convinced that the boys aren’t tweakers and will fuck up eventually, he and partner Alberto Walker (Gil Birmingham) set up camp at the Poke branch; it fits the profile.

The plot’s as worn as a rattlesnake skin on a windowsill, but Mackenzie encourages the actors to play it quiet and savor Taylor Sheridan’s rumpled dialogue. At first Bridges and Birmingham’s repartee has the tired ping-pong effect of an exchange in a Matlock episode — lots of zings about age and Walker’s mixed ancestry — but through quiet exchanges in gross motel rooms and, importantly, shifts in body language the pair suggest the depths of their love. Bridges’ terrific dry-as-beef-jerky performance (in spots he’s channeling Sam Elliott) complements Birmingham’s nuances of outrage; it’s hard knowing to what degree the racist barbs hurt him but hard to doubt he loves Marcus anyway. Hell or High Water has memorable work in the corners too, like Amber Midthunder as the spooked teller in Vernon and Katy Mixon as yet another hardbitten waitress who refuses to surrender the big tip Toby left her because she needs it for her own mortgage. I wish Mackenzie wasn’t so beholden to Sheridan’s schematic script: the first shot of those billboards is enough, and a certain character’s impending doom is writ so large that Mackenzie practically puts buzzards circling him. And he has crap taste in roots rock (the genre traffics in the obviousness that Hell or High Water avoids). This Scottish director has skill, though. The film opens with a 360 pan of the town that takes in the abandoned car wash, Goodyear, and blue Camaro that signal everything the audience has to know about rural Texas economics than any speech.

Hollywood is in such wretched shape for movies without guys in tights and capes that the success of Hell or High Water is a wet towel on a warm brow, and you can count on hearing about it come award time when its modesty will look like cynicism. I’m happy it’s found a home, though. Besides, I can think of few examples of awards bait as expertly choreographed and well modulated as Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges’ only confrontation, about which I’ll say nothing more. Mackenzie squelches the temptation to go big. I even imagined Bridges squinting at Pine and thinking, This kid’s gonna be OK. So is Mackenzie.

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