When a script tops the Black List, a yearly survey of the most liked unproduced screenplays, it's hard to tell if we should be clamoring for it to be made or wondering why it hasn't. When the screenwriter is Taylor Sheridan of Sicario, you'd think to lean towards the former. But Hell or High Water, written by Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is proof that beloved screenplay plus great actors doesn't necessarily equal cinematic gem.
Jeff Bridges, who isn't above showing off some well-earned 66-year-old man boob, gets top billing as Marcus, a Texas Ranger with just a few weeks left until retirement. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) spends most of the movie accepting Marcus's jovial racist barbs with a strained smile and commenting on how boring it'll be without him around. If you can't guess what happens there, you haven't seen enough movies.
Their targets are Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), brothers who've launched a West Texas bank robbing spree. It's a haphazard criminal scheme; Toby tips their hand almost immediately by leaving a massive tip for a friendly waitress at the same time as Tanner makes an unplanned stop at a bank next door. But while their mission isn't grandiose, neither is Marcus's; he's just looking to do his job one more time before his bosses force him into an early departure. They're all just trying to fill the voids in their souls.
If only Hell or High Water was that subtle. For the first half hour or so, you can't go 30 seconds without hearing a character remark on hard times. "These are hard times," everyone murmurs, followed by a shot of an empty home, a deserted lot, billboards promoting debt relief. No one curses President Barack's name or rants about subprime mortgages, but it's clear that this is a Story of Our Times.
Fortunately, from there we settle into more well-trodden territory for storytelling. Toby and Tanner have a little Robin Hood in them, robbing from the rich to give to themselves, except when they’re threatening women or getting into shootouts with the police. But it’s refreshing to avoid a Bonnie and Clyde, media-centric subplot where they become kings of Texas for their antics. No one shoves a camera in their face; they’re stealing such small amounts of money that no one even cares about them besides Marcus and Alberto. Hell or High Water‘s smaller scale ends up being much appreciated.
As is the acting; it won’t surprise you to hear that Ben Foster is tremendous again. From 3:10 to Yuma to The Messenger and Lone Survivor, he’s made a career out of being the best thing in someone else’s movie or a genius in something nobody saw. He’s an unhinged adult scamp here, with enough charm to suck you in but dead eyes that prompt anyone with sense to stay away. As Foster gets older and adds some menacing chunk to his formerly skinny frame, he’s evolving into his destiny as a character actor’s dream.
Bridges, per usual, brings his steady, stellar self. One scene in particular brilliantly captures the mix of elation and revulsion that revenge murder must provide; excitement gives way to disgust and then despair in waves that he dips into almost effortlessly. It’s just hard, at this point, to get Rooster Cogburn off the mind when he’s playing a mumbly lawman. True Grit wasn’t an masterpiece or anything, but the Coens just have a way of portraying Bridges in an iconic state.
And then there’s Pine. After three Star Treks of middling-to-solid acclaim, he’s baked into Captain Kirk in a real and forever kind of way. Yet he finds something in Toby—quietly pursuing bad decisions backed with good intentions but fueled by a life of fuckups—that at least allows him to keep up with Foster and Bridges. A long scene near the end, where he alone carries the weight of a suspenseful moment, provides hope that there’s a post-space Pine who’ll take on even meatier roles than this.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing in Hell or High Water that you haven’t seen before. There’s a hint of Western (especially in a late-movie stare down) and some gunplay mixed with the beauty of the Texas landscape and a touch of modern-day American blues. It’s No Country for Old Men without the boiled-in tension, Justified without the wit and charm of Raylan Givens. You’ll enjoy your 102 minutes in the theater, praise the three leads for their work, and forget all the specifics an hour later. Thanks, Obama.