When the going gets tough, the tough get going. For the Howard brothers, when the going gets tough, the tough start stealing and shooting and driving dangerously through the roads of West Texas.
See, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers. Their aim is half-redemption and half-retribution. Toby has a problem with killing. Tanner doesn’t, having done time already for murder.
When Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to track down the mysterious thieves, they find themselves on a collision course with two men who will do anything for each other and the people they love.
The beauty of “Hell or High Water” comes from a script that knows when to ignite its actors with beautiful dialogue and when to leave them in silence. The film often drowns out diegetic sound altogether, easing the audience into a removed state where they must act as judges, not participants, in the action. I say the phrase ‘beautiful dialogue’ without hyperbole: the script by Taylor Sheridan makes the most of American Southern dialect and the characters breathe like a Tarantino script. The sly remarks and jabs between Hamilton and Parker stand out especially. Here are two men alike in many ways, so they find the few differences between them to mock and tease. In the way old men do, they often cross lines. Hamilton makes a remark denoting Parker’s race, and Parker chuckles, and there is no hurt because their inborn respect for one another means that it is allowed. Time give sensitive hearts a stone coating.
An intelligent script awash with twists and turns is nothing without dedicated actors to dive into it headfirst. Chris Pine, previously marvelous in the rebooted “Star Trek” pictures and “Into the Woods” is here at last given the means to flex his acting chops. By this, I mean that he falls into the character, never stealing the scenes. Often, Pine is looking at the ground or into the distance – we get the feeling that he prefers going unnoticed. His character’s motivations drive the main plot, and Pine sells it by simply stating the obvious: that it’s the only thing he knows that’s worth doing. You get the feeling that once Toby’s task is accomplished, he would be content to melt into the desert around him and lay in the sun.
Playing the other Howard brother, Tanner, Ben Foster delivers yet another standout performance in a long career of brilliant work. As a character actor, I feel like I ought to call him underrated, but that would only be concerning the awards circuit. Foster continues to work with the brightest and best, and proves himself an invaluable asset to any film. Tanner is the more immediately interesting of the two brothers, with his spitfire attitude and seemingly magnetic attraction to trouble, but under the direction of David McKenzie, is never allowed to go over-the-top, resulting in a man who seems trapped in a cycle of endless violence. At times, we sense that he wants to leave all this behind, but then he holds a gun in his hands, and his eyes light up. And then he’s back at it.
Playing the Marshals, Bridges as Hamilton plays the world-weary lawman in the same vein as Tommy Lee Jones did in “No Country for Old Men.” While Jones confronted an ultimate evil and came out even more tired because of it in that picture, Bridges seems content to sit back on his haunches and play the part one last time. He’s headed for retirement, and promises this to be his last case. It is, of course, a means for an ultimatum from the filmmaker – will Marshal Hamilton die on his last ever mission? – but the script wisely chooses to use it as material for many of Hamilton’s insults to Parker. Bridges brings some much-needed levity. In fact, all of the characters seem to joke around as much as they have quiet moments and intense conversations. Perhaps that’s because human beings are innately humorous creatures. You know you’re hearing great screenwriting when you don’t realize it until after the film.
Birmingham plays Parker with a subtle solemnity that commands respect. He is clearly used to being kicked around a little by Hamilton and giving it back in kind. I loved the touch that as soon as the action gets going, their mocking facade drops and they are brothers-in-arms as much as Tanner and Toby are brothers in blood.
As previously noted, the diegetic sound is often taken out of the film entirely so we can look on and watch the film as observers and not participants. It transcends the typical western boundaries to become a rare piece of American poetry. Especially powerful is a scene where Toby and Tanner are in a field and we see, for the first time, the little boys they must have been. They don’t act like brothers very often. Then they do. And that’s how brothers are. It’s not only a vital scene to the film that a weaker editor would have taken out – it’s one of the best scenes of 2016, and indeed, of any western in the 21st century.
I wish “Hell or High Water” had never ended. The pacing is so concise and each character so intricately built that you feel like this world is real, yet romanticized just enough that you could put your feet up on the Howard brothers’ porch rail and look out over the horizon. You’d sip from the cold glass in your hand. Then they’d get home and Tanner would threaten to shoot you if you stayed on their property any longer, and you’d take your leave. And you’d look at the horizon a little longer after.