The past and the present influence each other in either direction in the soulful, sorrowful neo-western Hell or High Water, which mourns the passing of the cowboy age and rails against the current state of capitalistic ruin in equal measure. This is the best western in years, partially because it’s one of the only westerns in years, but mainly because it elevates the genre to a peak of meta subtext that comments on the tropes and archetypes of the wild west panorama while simultaneously reciting a requiem for the beleaguered poor of modern Texas.
Two brothers take to bank robbing in order to settle their deceased mother’s debts and secure the family home in a tale that snakes through revenge territory while it tours the underbelly of dilapidated small town America. Tanner (a blazingly intense Ben Foster) and Toby (a quietly stoic Chris Pine) would be outlaw heroes a century-and-change earlier, but now they’re just criminals on the run, fighting as much against a corrupt system as they are against the dying of the once-attainable American dream.
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan layer and accessorize Tanner and Toby’s journey so that their movie is in a constant state of commentary. The themes aren’t hidden or buried, but their placement on the surface doesn’t prevent them from cutting deep, either. While there’s a lot on Mackenzie and Sheridan’s minds, they never lose focus of the plot and run off on some rambling tangent.
Instead, they stay focused on the brothers and weave the commentary into their experience, further defining the state of Texas as a character in this story and complicating the already murky moral soup the movie simmers in from the very beginning. Hell or High Water takes us to many small towns where the only establishments able to stay open are banks and eateries and it briefly introduces us to a wide range of citizens whose statements and attitudes flavour the various observations about current Texan life.
Another representative of classic western iconography is nearly retired Texas Ranger Marcus (a gruff, marble-mouthed Jeff Bridges), who personifies the law here and adds another support to the bridge between old and new. Marcus acts and moves like a relic, constantly hurling insults at his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a soft-spoken man of both Comanche and Mexican heritage, which fuels Marcus’ playful, though hurtful jabs. The lawman hails from a different time, but he firmly occupies this one as well, immersing himself in one last opportunity to catch the bad guys and protect the innocent from harm.
Mackenzie and Sheridan vacillate between Marcus and Sheridan in careful pursuit and Tanner and Toby in the latest stage of their dangerous plan, wisely developing all four characters to increase our emotional investment, while additionally graying the spaces that usually separate heroes from villains. Tanner is the movie’s closest thing to a true antagonist who must be stopped, but even he has his motivations and a murmured backstory that turns his trajectory tragic.
This push to give each of the main characters a distinct personality and purpose further strengthens the movie’s bid for realism. With such a wide thematic reach and such loud commentary on the current state of an entire state, Hell or High Water needs to lean heavily on a believable grittiness to make its statements singe the frayed ends of these characters’ existences. With the movie star faces selling the dramatic conflict so convincingly, the peppered appearances of various citizens expressing their own feelings on the subject feel all the more genuine.
When Marcus and Alberto have to pause on a country road to allow some cattle to pass, one of the horse-riding herders makes a remark about how his kids don’t want to follow in the footsteps of their dear old dad. He can’t blame them, either, so archaic in the eyes of this century is his work. It’s perhaps the movie’s most blatant declaration about the ending of an age and the truncating of a generational way of life, but where a lack of subtlety resides, so does a poignant plea to immortalize the past through memories.
Hell or High Water is as much about fondly remembering the mythic wild west’s cinematic identity as it is about acknowledging what has actually come of it. This combination of fiction and fact, yearning for an embellished past and feeling for a damaged present, effectively encapsulates the movie’s melancholic mood and overall outlook. This is genre revisionism via rough-and-tumble realism. Archetypes become flawed flesh and blood people struggling to navigate a shifting landscape. Nearly every moment and every dialogue exchange draws another line between old and new, mapping a timeline etched in equal parts dusted celluloid and dusty earth.