Divorced father of one Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-convict, trigger-happy brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are undertaking a series of heists against the bank that’s about to foreclose on the family ranch. Standing in their way is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger who’s trying to ignore his imminent retirement. Together with partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Marcus tracks the brothers and as the siblings plot their final robbery, they must also prepare for a showdown with the crafty lawman who’s not ready to ride off into the sunset just yet.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and times couldn’t be more desperate in Texas right now. The sub-prime loan debacle (so well decoded in The Big Short) has left a community blighted, boarded-up homes and businesses graffitied with hate and bile against the big banks that are blamed. Toby Howard (a never better Chris Pine) has thrown in with wayward, just out of jail brother Tanner (Ben Foster, playing unhinged wonderfully) to rob the bank about to foreclose on his farm and pay them off with their own money. Hitting out of the way branches and taking only small bills and small amounts, they use a different stolen car each time, burying each on Toby’s land.
It’s an intelligent plan, or would be if it weren’t for Tanner’s anarchic mentality. The brothers are careful, wearing ski masks and gloves and have only threatened violence so far. But then Tanner robs a bank by himself on a whim, spilling cash all over the road as he flees, and the next robbery results in murder; everyone seemingly carries a concealed weapon in Texas and some bystander was bound to take offence sooner or later.
On their heels is the grizzled, sarcastic, three weeks from retirement Marcus, played by Jeff Bridges almost as a direct descendent of his Rooster Cogburn. Teamed with half Mexican/half Cherokee partner Alberto, these are the yang to the Howard brothers yin and its Bridges who provides much of the film’s levity, his constant ribbing of Alberto a delight.
Director David Mackenzie is not an obvious choice for such material; he last helmed Starred Up and that lauded British prison drama gave not a hint that he’d be at home making a modern western heist flick. But as he has said, sometimes it takes an outsider looking in to reveal the truth and Hell or High Water is a fresh, honest and thrilling take on how recent financial events have impacted on those at the very bottom of the food chain in America’s deep south. There’s no preaching nor patronising, and Tanner’s psychotic, homicidal bent removes much of the sympathy for the duo meaning you’ll end up rooting for Marcus to get his man.
Beautifully shot, with a cracking soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, Hell or High Water manages to tread the fine line between outright fun – the heists themselves are thrilling – and social commentary. Bridges is as good here as in anything he’s ever done, Gil Birmingham as partner Alberto is wonderfully laconic and Ben Foster errs just on the right side of maniac to make Tanner both dangerous and a loving brother at the same time. But it’s Chris Pine who really shines, all signs of Captain Kirk’s swagger and cockiness gone. He more than holds his own in scenes alongside Bridges – always an exceedingly generous actor, it has to be said – where others may have wilted.
Standout performances from supporting players, especially Katy Nixon as sassy waitress Jenny Ann who really, really doesn’t want to give up the generous tip left to her by Toby, mark the quality on display here. Hell or High Water is near faultless and should enjoy a fêted, long life in home viewing long after it’s left theatres.