Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming one of my favorite screenwriters working today.
He wrote SICARIO (2015), which was my favorite movie of the year last year. And now he’s followed that sensational film up with another, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). Sheridan is also an accomplished actor. Among his acting credits, he played Deputy Chief Hale during the first couple of seasons of SONS OF ANARCHY.
HELL OR HIGH WATER tells two separate stories which run parallel to each other until they converge during the film’s conclusion.
Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are on a bank robbing spree in Texas. No, this isn’t the Old West, but present day where the economy is so bad that the locals are actually happy these guys are robbing banks, since the banks are the ones which are robbing the people of their livelihood.
Meanwhile, Texas Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is days away from retirement. He catches wind of the robberies, and while his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) thinks Hamilton is only interested because he wants to go out with a bang, to find one last case to work on to delay his retirement, the truth is, Hamilton is intrigued because he sniffs out a plan that is a step above the crimes he usually comes in contact with. There’s something more going on here than just a string of small time robberies.
And that’s because while big brother Tanner is an ex-con and a hothead, the bank robbing scheme is not his idea. It’s his younger brother Toby’s, and it involves paying off the reverse mortgage on his recently deceased mother’s property, property the bank is only too happy to confiscate. It also involves being able to leave his two sons something, something that he never had.
As Toby says at one point in the movie, poverty is like an inherited disease. You’re born into it. Your parents are born into it, they pass it on to you, and you in turn pass it on to your children. Tanner says that’s not going to happen to his kids.
So, as Toby and Tanner continue their meticulous spree, stealing only small amounts of money to keep off the fed’s radar, Hamilton continues his pursuit, trusting his gut that he’s got these guys figured out, and that he knows where they will strike next. It’s a perfect set-up to a suspenseful and fully satisfying conclusion.
There are so many good things about HELL OR HIGH WATER.
The best part, to be sure, is the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. It covers a lot of ground and contains many poignant moments. The theme is clear: the American dream is dying, and the culprit is big money and the banks who control it.
Hamilton’s partner Alberto says it point blank, telling Hamilton that 150 years ago the land was stolen from his people by Hamilton’s people, and now it’s being stolen again, but this time the victims are Hamilton’s people, and the thieves are the banks.
There are many other fine moments as well. When Hamilton requests the $200 tip Toby left a diner waitress because it’s evidence, the waitress refuses to give it to him, scolding him, saying that he’ll need a warrant to take away the money from her, money that she needs to pay her mortgage to keep a roof over her daughter’s head.
Earlier in that same diner, Toby wonders why his brother doesn’t seem to think they’ll get away with it, to which Tanner answers that he’s never known anyone to get away with anything, a hint that the crazy ex-con isn’t above some planning of his own.
Another time, Toby takes his estranged teen son aside and tells him how much he cares for him, and that he doesn’t want him and his brother to turn out like Toby and Tanner. He then offers his son a beer, to which the teen replies, “You say you don’t want me to be like you, and then you offer me a beer. Which one is it?”
The screenplay is deep and resonates on all levels.
The performances are all first rate.
Chris Pine is excellent here as Toby, and it’s fun to see him deliver a much more nuanced and satisfying performance than his Captain Kirk portrayals in the current STAR TREK reboots. It gives Pine a chance to show he’s more than just a handsome face.
I always like Ben Foster. He has wowed me in a bunch of movies, none more than his powerful performance in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). He’s terrific again here as the hothead brother Tanner. It’s the type of role Foster can play in his sleep, yet I never get tired of watching him. It’s funny because the Jason Statham actioner sequel MECHANIC: RESURRECTION (2016) also opened this weekend, and Foster co-starred with Statham in the first film THE MECHANIC (2011). He was one of the best parts of that first movie, and Statham sure could have used Foster’s presence in the sequel, which was pretty dreadful.
Even better than Pine and Foster, is Jeff Bridges as Marshall Marcus Hamilton. As played by Bridges, Hamilton is old, slow, and days from retiring, but he hasn’t lost a step. Bridges makes what could have been an annoying old fart, a man who is constantly making ethnically charged jokes at his partner’s expense, into a compelling, believable, and likeable character. It’s fun to watch Bridges, because as he’s gotten older, his performances have gotten better. He’s always been good, but these days, as he’s in his 60s, he’s really good.
Director David Mackenzie also does a fine job at the helm. He captures the feel of economically strained Texas. On more than one occasion, folks say they’re glad these guys are robbing the banks, which they see as the real villains in their lives. He also captures life in Texas. Several times during their robberies, Toby and Tanner encounter men with guns who are quick to shoot at them. One point, a large group of these men jump into their pick-up trucks, form a “posse,” and head off in hot pursuit of the bank robbers. Who said this isn’t the Old West?
Another time, Marcus and Alberto come across some cowhands who are driving pathetic looking cattle away from a large brush fire. One cowhand remarks, “It’s the 21st century and I’m doing this! I can’t believe this is what I have to offer my kids!”
In a way, what this movie captures best is the feeling that here in the 21st century we have taken a step backwards. The mantra that life is better for the next generation doesn’t seem to exist anymore. And the villains, the reason that life isn’t better than it was, is big money and big banks.
HELL OR HIGH WATER is a superior movie. It’s that rare film where everything works.
As such, it just might be the best movie of the year.