I think I can now proclaim what was the best film of a poor summer: Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. A contemporary Western noir, it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger trying to capture them.
The film is, at its core, a meditation on wealth and poverty. The reason the brothers are robbing banks is that their ranch, which belonged to their late mother, is about to be foreclosed on (in a reverse mortgage–beware those folksy ads by Robert Wagner). But oil has just been discovered on it, so in order to keep it in the family (it was left to Pine’s two teenage sons) the men have decided to rob banks–but only branches of the bank that has threatened to foreclose.
In a way, it’s a bit of Robin Hood and some of the Grapes of Wrath. There are many cutaway shots of billboards advertising debt relief, and Pine gives a speech about how his family has been poor for generations; that it’s like a disease. His brother, Foster, is doing it as much for the fun of it, though. He’s just out of jail, and is the mastermind behind the heists. He does impulsively rob on bank while Pine is eating in a restaurant across the street. Pine asks him, “How did you stay out of jail for a year?” and Foster answers, “It wasn’t easy.”
Bridges, still using his Rooster Cogburn accent, is terrific as a guy nearing retirement. His partner (Gil Birmingham) is half Comanche, half Mexican. Bridges spends most of the film teasing him about his heritage, which sounds worse than it is. The actors convince us that though Birmingham would love the insults to stop, there is a close respect between the two men. Though the film is tragic, Bridges provides a lot of comic relief. A scene in which he and Birmingham order dinner at a diner in small Texas town is hilarious.
Bank robbery, like kidnapping, is a crime that is almost impossible to get away with anymore, at least in the U.S. Someone says to Bridges, “the days when you could rob banks and get away with it are long gone.” So you know this isn’t going to end well, but Sheridan’s script is very clever in how it gets us to root for both sides–we want the brothers to get away with it, but we also want Bridges to catch them. The rule for ending a movie is that in be inevitable but not predictable, and that holds true here.
I should also add that this film could be a favorite of the NRA. At one point the brothers are waylaid during a robbery by a town in which it seems everyone is armed, and then Foster sends patriotic citizens running with an AR-15. If only everyone carried an AR-15!
I have no idea how well this movie will do, but I hope it isn’t forgotten around awards season. Bridges deserves a Best Actor nomination, and the script and direction should be remembered, too. There’s also a great musical score with lots of songs that perfectly describe west Texas.