Texas forever. That may be the catchphrase of one Tim Riggins, but the same spirit is at the heart of Hell or High Water. And that heart? It’s on the film’s proverbial sleeve. Hell or High Water is a love letter to Texas and the archetypal Texas character of the sort that was on display in No Country for Old Men.
Happily, Hell or High Water doesn’t feel like a pretender to the Coen throne. It lacks the intellectual bent and reverence for the enigmatic that so frustrates some viewers in Coen films. Rather, director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) lace this story of two brothers’ desperate bid to save their family farm with meditations on the nature of brotherly love and the notion of legacy. It’s a breathless, gritty sprint that indulges in the slightest pauses to let emotion and resonance fill the spaces between the crime and desperation.
If you caught Tonight You’re Mine, it should come as no surprise that Mackenzie understands how to put human relationships on the screen. And just a trailer for Sicario is enough to establish Sheridan’s flair for tension. The film further benefits from a trio of lead performances that rise to the challenge of blending all of these elements.
Jeff Bridges is Marcus, the long-in-the-tooth lawman on the verge of reluctant retirement. Chris Pine (in one of the best performances of his career) is Toby, a stretched-thin, divorced farmer reeling from the death of his mother and drowning under the responsibilities in front of him. Ben Foster is Tanner, the black sheep ex-con of the family who becomes Toby’s lifeline and partner in crime when all else seems lost.
When the brothers begin robbing sleepy banks, the stage is set for a game of Texas-style cat-and-mouse. What follows is some game. Hell or High Water wasn’t on my radar, but my advice is to put it on yours. Even in a summer full of tentpole pictures you’ll be hard-pressed to find one with better performances, pacing and storytelling. A lot of crime movies promise intensity and grit. Hell or High Water doesn’t have time for promises, it just delivers.