Hell or High Water is the goods. A modern Western, a chase thriller, a character study and a social commentary, it’s gripping and entertaining from start to finish—the kind of lean, resonant filmmaking that restores your faith in the power of the movies.
The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), directed with by grit and restraint by Scotsman David Mackenzie (Starred Up), is classic and simple. Two semi-estranged brothers, played by a haunted and never-better Chris Pine and a wired, electric Ben Foster, don ski masks to rob petty cash from a chain of banks dangled across some sleepy, barely-making-it West Texas towns. They drive beater getaway cars to each new job and bury them on their dying ranch when they’re done. These guys are kind of inept, but also surprisingly effective, and each has his reasons for doing what he’s doing. They’re the James boys with contemporary angst.
Meanwhile, a bristly, racist Texas Ranger nearing mandatory but not welcome retirement—that’s Jeff Bridges, giving a masterful performance—is on their trail, along with his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham). This buzzard is going to hunt them down if it’s the last thing he does.
Hell or High Water is not only bristling with authenticity; it’s also full of rage about how banksters and indifferent politicians have drained the lifeblood out of small towns. The desolate landscape the brothers drive past is dotted with runaway fires, billboards advertising payday loans and abandoned houses, gas stations and cafes. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis underscores the mood of vast skies and shrinking opportunities. We empathize.
Although you can pretty much guess how things are going to play out in the finale, the ride is so satisfying, bleakly funny and well-acted, you almost wish the cat-and-mouse games would never end. You also wish they’d come up with a much less generic bargain-bin title. The movie’s way better than that.