A small town bank in West Texas is robbed. Two gunmen, only taking low denomination bills from the cash drawers. Then another bank, the same modus operandi. A third. The robbers taking only several thousand dollars each time, but leaving no evidence, no trail. On their trail, two lawmen, tracking them across the desert.
Hell or High Water is very much a modern Western. The plot is familiar and predictable, but the tropes are there for a purpose. This is the 21st century frontier, as debt overwhelms country folk, leaving them struggling for a living in dying towns. The imagery is loan billboards, oil frackers, desolation and rusting metal everywhere.
Amidst it all, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) sees his family ranch facing foreclosure. With his mother recently dead from cancer and hiding out from his estranged ex-wife and his two sons due to not having the money for child support, he is desperate. He turns to his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con with bankrobbing experience.
Positioned against them is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), the traditional about-to-retire grizzled lawman and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The pair are stuck trying to piece together a portrait of the criminals while dealing with banks whose video cameras are not connected and eyewitnesses who care more about their waitressing tips than the potential thieves they served.
As the law closes in, it quickly becomes apparent that Toby’s biggest problem is his volatile brother. Tanner sees the robbing as his redemption, his chance to make up for a lost life. But set against that is his own impulsive, self-destructive urges that run completely contrary to the cool planning of Toby.
The dry, dying Texan landscape is a compelling backdrop for this final rage against the inequity of modern society. MacKenzie shoots it almost like another character, the long dusty roads stretching off to the horizon looking less like freedom and more like hopelessness.
The cast are strong, Bridges channeling No Country For Old Men with his laconic, deceptively clever lawman. The standout is Foster, who portrays Tanner as a loose cannon, but one whose bravado is all a cover-up for deep scars. He’s never sympathetic, but always understandable.
The strength of the filmmaking and the performances carry past a familiar storyline to create a superb modern take on the classic Western, while reinventing the touchstones of the genre. Excellent.
The extras consist of several above-average featurettes. These are mostly talking heads, interspersed with behind-the-scenes shots as the cast and crew discuss the characters, performances and so on. The most interesting of these discusses the visual aspects of the film, with the choices for earth tones even in the interiors to underline how much the film is about the land. To this extent, the first thing director MacKenzie did when the film was greenlit was to take a road trip through West Texas with his cinematographer and production designer.
Overall, the extra features are solid, if unspectacular, but contain some good meat on the film’s themes and how the various aspects were used to draw these out.