Hell or High Water (2016)


This is a superb movie about two brothers in vast West Texas who rob several banks to pay off an otherwise unaffordable reverse mortgage on their dead mother’s rural spread in time to prevent foreclosure by Texas Midland Bank, oil having recently been discovered on that land to the assessed value of fifty thousand dollars a month under an oil lease with a willing major oil company. The younger brother, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a smart, melancholic and engaging loner, out of work since the decline in natural gas drilling, wants to pass the wealth to his divorced wife and their two children. Toby’s brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), a volatile adrift ex-con with a rugged and defiant Texas code of adventure and who served his prison time for killing his abusive father, joins in Toby’s enervating  idealism. The two skillfully rob two Texas Midland Bank branches in small towns, nearing the money they need to prevent foreclosure, but trigger an investigation by shrewd Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who is half Comanche. After visiting the robbery scenes and nearby places, and interviewing witnesses, Hamilton, unhappy about his imminent retirement, infers the M.O. of the Howard brothers and closes in on them. After a dramatic penultimate sequence following a third robbery of a Texas Midland branch–a shootout in the enormous Big Country of West Texas–Hell or High Water reaches a most plausible and apt End.

The best thing about this artistic movie is that before all else it is a flawless Texas Movie. You can watch it and let the wonder of its precision overcome you. In service to this rare moviegoing experience, expect inspired acting and dazzling writing–the screenplay is uncannily right, beautifully allusive, rich in historical cultural clues–together with unforgettable scenic wonders in a perfect bringing over of West Texas–the enormity, the remoteness, the hard life, the little towns, the remote farms, the gun culture, the eccentric fast food diners, even the right way to sip beer from a bottle. In sum: you become aware subtly–almost subliminally–of the Texas Past carrying into Now. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t even past.”

A few of the touches showing the Texas Past shading into Now in Hell or High Water: reference to the Comanches as one-time “Lords of the Plains”; the sense of the horrific and atrocious battles Out There in the 1800s between the raiding Comanches and  the Texas Rangers; the death of Alberto Parker at the hands of Tanner, with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan hyper-alertly alluding to: (i) the famous Comanche kidnapping of Cynthia Parker in 1836 and her confusion of identity after she, now a mother of three half-Comanche children, including the well-known last free Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, was recovered years later; (ii) Sheridan staging a confrontation in an Indian Casino between Tanner and a Comanche-American who both end up agreeing they’re lost, no longer Lords of the Plains or of any other place; (iii) Sheridan’s dialog of sharp but finally affectionate cultural ribbing between the white Ranger Marcus and the half-Comanche Ranger Alberto, a long but not invisible way from the savage battles nearly two centuries ago on the Northwest Texas plains.

You’ll discover other temporal blends.

Hell or High Water is one of the best movies I’ve seen that makes you feel a place and a culture and says something important about the persistence of ways of life. The conclusion–the state of things at the end following the bank-heist storyline–makes perfect sense.