Considering its high-profile cast and overwhelmingly positive reviews, it is a mystery why Hell or High Water went relatively unnoticed as an end-of-summer thriller. David Mackenzie directs, with Ben Foster and Chris Pine playing the Howard brothers, two Texan ranchers struggling against the foreclosure of their family farm who decide to organize a series of bank robberies to raise some needed funds. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play Texas Ranger Hamilton and his partner Alberto, respectively, who are investigating the thefts, constantly and threateningly close on the heels of the Howards.
From the outset, the film holds its audience in unparalleled suspense. The soft country music foils the searing heat of the Texas sun, palpable thanks to the artful cinematography: every surface carries an auburn tinge, and as a result the entire film feels burnt. The Howard brothers’ blue eyes pierce the sandy scene, but the result is unnerving, not refreshing — the color seems unnatural against their suntanned skin — and the only real points of light are the Texas Rangers’ clean-lined white hats. A constant hiss, a mixture of screeching cicadas, warning rattlesnakes, and rustling dry leaves, underlies the whole movie. The noise gnaws at the audience, irritating to the point of frustration, like an unscratchable itch.
The Howards are visibly grungy, covered in a layer of grime both figurative and literal, and this filth stains the entire movie — a film of dust coats everything, and despite the sun’s blinding glare, nothing shines. Mackenzie’s directorial genius is evident in this disgusting detail, which silently but powerfully illustrates the extent of poverty in the rural American Southwest.
Pine is surprisingly perfect as Toby Howard, a gritty, stubbly rancher, far from his polished action roles in previous works like Star Trek and Jack Ryan. The costume department deserves recognition for a great deal of Pine’s transformation: his shirts are slightly too large and his jeans too long, extending his frame into that of a rancher starved and lean. His shaggy hair and dark mustache completely change the structure of his face, hollowing his cheeks and eyes.
Interestingly, Toby’s dark, lean appearance contrasts that of his brother Tanner — Foster looks stout and stubby in wide jeans, thick belts, and tucked-in shirts. His receding hairline widens his face, pudgy and soft, and his light eyebrows offer no definition. His close-set eyes seem lost in the expanse — he looks, quite simply, gross.
Still, despite their physical differences, similar pairs of upsettingly blue eyes connect Pine and Foster. Without this feature, a relation between the two would have been dubious, but Mackenzie’s carefully coordinated shots repeatedly highlight the actors’ eyes, suspending the audience’s disbelief and sucking them into the film’s corrupted plot.
Bridges is powerful as Texas Ranger Hamilton, an aging widower being pushed toward retirement from the force. He is abrasive, hilarious, and a little racist, but Bridges artfully betrays Hamilton’s wounded tenderness during the film’s quieter scenes. From the outside, his role in Hell or High Water may seem too similar to his Oscar-nominated Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s True Grit — but his portrayal of each role is completely distinct, displaying no loss in the talent that spurred his long and prosperous career.
In their scenes, Foster and Pine play off of each other flawlessly. Foster’s character is a hardened, crazed criminal, unashamed of his dark and bloody past and unafraid of his inevitable and fast-approaching end. Tanner’s psychotic, prideful buzz contrasts Toby’s dutiful-but-hesitant attitude during every robbery scene, and the demented look in his eyes grows from unsettling to absolutely frightening. Foster is dangerously spectacular in this role.
Pine’s Toby, however, is quieter, rougher, and sadder — he is a dirt-poor cowboy, a loyal brother and a divorced father, and his behavior in each role is distinct. His rebellion against his situation is not as wild as his brother’s, but he is far from submissive; he makes his crimes seem more like righting wrongs, rather than committing them.
Hell or High Water is one of the most artful Western films in years. It touches on common themes — cowboys and Indians, the rural South, desperation, authority, and justice — but handles each in an entirely new way; no element is stale. The actors are perfectly cast, the characters raw and honest, and the scenes perfectly set and choreographed, resulting in an absorbing, gripping, and complex film. It cleverly retains the heat and suspense of the Western genre, but exhibits none of the campiness, resulting in a thrilling, ethically challenging, and entirely unique film, a perfect movie to end the summer.