Who says the days of the Western movie are over? As long as Jeff Bridges is around, the Western genre ain’t goin’ nowhere. This time we harken back (actually set in present day) to West Texas where everyone either drives a truck or a horse, and where it is your civic responsibility to take that truck or horse and chase down them robbers. When the day is over and the job is done, usually around 11:00 am, you can crack open a beer on the porch and pretend like it ain’t hotter than a burnt potato in a fire pit.
After their mother’s death, Toby (Chris Pine) and his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), come up with a plan to save her ranch from the bank. The honest part of the plan is that the ranch will go in trust to Toby’s boys, to do with as they please. The not so honest part is that Toby and Tanner will rob banks to raise the cash. Toby tries to keep the jobs as clean as possible, robbing tellers first thing in the morning before any customers can get in the way. Tanner, however, is one of those ‘rotten eggs’ fresh out of prison and an A+ shit disturber. Tanner is simply unable to stop himself from lashing out at everyone, everything, and sometimes at himself, which can make covering their tracks a little tricky. Following the brothers’ trail is the nearly retired Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Their grand plan is to sit in front of a bank and wait for the robbers to show up, with Marcus passing the time by aiming racist jokes at his partner. Hell or High Water is certainly not one for the giggles.
It’s really quite dirty. That’s not just because we’re playing in the desert and these boys prefer to bathe the soul in liquor rather than actually bathe, but it’s also because of the subject matter. Robbing banks is no easy business and it hurts everyone involved. We’re dragged through Toby’s internal struggle from start to finish, set against his brother’s joie de criminality. They roughhouse like brothers, hang out on the ranch like brothers, and tell each other they’re stupid idiots (paraphrasing… think more cowboy) like brothers. They also steal cash, pistol whip managers, threaten old ladies, harass the locals, and assault women at the bar. Most of that is Tanner’s doing. He just can’t help being an ass. And it’s Toby’s place to apologize for him, hold him back, and feel terrible about his uncontrollable relations once they’re in the clear.
While they may not be as physically violent as the brothers, the Rangers are no heroes either. Alberto seems like a nice man, but Marcus is an old, racist fart. His every other line is an insult to Alberto who tolerates his ignorance like a loyal subordinate. It’s tough being forced to picture Marcus as the hero character, even if our noble Ranger is in the midst of tracking down robbers. Marcus is just so offensive. The only thing that keeps him going is the job, and once that’s gone he’s terrified of spending the rest of his days sitting on a porch waiting to die. But without this jerk in the driver’s seat, Hell or High Water would be a typical hero/villain shakedown, like the millions we’ve seen before. So like I said, it sums up to not being one for the giggles.
Hell or High Water is also very slow. Most of the film lags on Toby’s struggle between wanting the land for his boys and reigning in his explosive brother — whom he loves unconditionally. Chris Pine plays a believable Texan with a sharp mind but very few options in life. He doesn’t have an ounce of privilege to give his cleverness a boost; just a plan and a lot of patience. While his internal struggle between loving his brother and hating Tanner’s actions is interesting, it’s not really captivating. Hell or High Water drags like a southern drawl, lumbering towards the shootout we all knew was coming.
It’s dusty, it’s grimy, there’s crime, addiction, and there are cold ones any hour of the day. The Toby/Tanner storyline runs in parallel to the Marcus/Alberto line, with each trying to survive one hot day after another. Hell or High Water didn’t grab me like some action-packed Westerns do. It wasn’t even that shocking. It’s a family drama set against the fear of retirement and a dry, sad, dying region. I say Hell or High Water settles in at a 5/10 because the cinematography is clean and thematic, but the story is a little tedious.