In a desperate hope to save the family farm and secure a future for his children, a father will team up with his ex-convict brother and set out on a series of bank heists throughout West Texas…in Hell or High Water.
Hell or High Water, from director David Mackenzie, is a gripping modern day western that masterfully evolves the genre for the 21st century.
Chris Pine stars as Toby Howard, a divorced father of two whose family’s ranch is facing foreclosure due to the predatory practices of their local bank. So in order to both save the ranch and serve up a little frontier justice on the evil bankers threatening his family’s future, Toby will enlist the help of his outlaw brother, Tanner (played here by Ben Foster). And together, the two rob seemingly every bank in West Texas while also keeping one step ahead of the Texas Rangers.
For all his leading-man good looks, Chris Pine has never really held his own in a leading role. Whether he’s playing James T. Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise, or Steve Trevor in the much-beloved Wonder Woman feature film, something is always lacking when Pine is front and center. Perhaps it’s been the rather flimsy material he’s worked with. Perhaps it’s a matter of working in and around too much non-existent CGI. Or maybe he’s simply lacking in charisma. But whatever the case, Pine has often been better served by the posters and publicity shots for his movies rather than any given scene in them.
That said, I suppose some actors are simply born to play cowboy. Because much like fellow Los Angeles native and co-star Jeff Bridges, Pine’s ability to smolder, brood, and deliver a solid thousand-yard stare while also speaking with a cool, commanding drawl immediately puts him up there with the likes of Fonda, Eastwood, and even the Duke himself. Whether he’s sharing the screen with Ben Foster’s wild, intense Toby or Bridge’s, of course, incredibly charismatic Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, Pine not only holds his own but earns his place as leading man. The screen presence he lacked in those larger, louder, flashier movies is on full display in Hell or High Water. He’s not just part of an ensemble or playing sidekick to the real star of the show. Instead he’s commanding and controlling every scene he’s in. He’s charming. He’s confident. He’s got “true grit,” so to speak.
Of course, Pine benefits from working with some phenomenal talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Much like Italian director Sergio Leone before him, David Mackenzie–a Scottish filmmaker–redefines the idea of the classic American Western. While Leone presented an Old West that was more violent and morally complex than what came before it, MacKenzie re-contextualizes every classic staple of the Western in the gritty, grounded reality of a West that has not just been tamed, but fully domesticated.
For example, an older Western might actually frame the actions of the bank (and its employees) as more malicious in nature. It’d give the audience a villain they can easily hate. Meanwhile, the lead–especially in a post-Fistful of Dollars world–would be a troubled antihero with a dark past but ultimately a heart of gold.
But Hell or High Water instead gives us a bank that is neither good nor evil. The employees are simply that, people working a job they need to pay the bills. The evil bank is a faceless corporation led by greedy businessmen who never appear in the movie to twirl their mustaches. In fact, Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan reinforce how detached and amoral the whole backstory is by keeping anyone related to the bank ignorant of how much the Howard family ranch is actually worth. This is purely a case of a family in need taken advantage of by a faceless corporation rather than some targeted act of malice or greed.
Even the Texas Rangers, as charming as Bridges might be, are never framed as outright heroic. Instead, they’re simply men performing the duties of their job to the best of their abilities. They clearly care about the law and bringing criminals to justice. They’re not corrupt. They don’t have a dirty past. They don’t have itchy trigger fingers. They’re not gunslingers looking for one last shootout. But they aren’t mythical knights riding horseback with ten-gallon hats either. They’re just men working a job and looking forward to retirement.
Hell or High Water still has its issues, of course.
The movie’s color pallet, while arguably appropriate given its West Texas setting, is incredibly limited. Functional, but bland. The characters and plot and story–while engaging from start to finish–aren’t so much fresh as they are well-presented. Those familiar with Westerns are going to know where everything is headed, modern context and style not withstanding. So by all rights, Hell or High Water should be little more than a fresh coat of paint on an old, rundown car with way too many miles on it. It’s all been done and rehashed countless times for over one-hundred years.
But like Leon’s spaghetti westerns–like Dirty Harry and Unforgiven–and especially like Eastwood’s Gran Torino–Hell or High Water succeeds due to the strength of its writing, performances, and directing.
You’ll watch these characters play out a story older than all of us because they’ll make you care. You’ll watch every heist and shootout on the edge of your seat because you’ve never seen one shot and paced the way Mackenzie does it. And the story feels fresh in spite of its high mileage and age because of how it removes what never worked about the genre, repairs and replaces the tattered old upholstery with something modern and relevant, and refurbishes and refines what always made the genre so massively popular.
Hell or High Water is a classic Western in every way that counts and matters. But it elevates the genre for a new age and a new audience. It’s a testament to how classic stories, characters, and themes never truly go out of fashion. They simply wait for the day someone comes along to breath new life into them.
I not only suggest, but insist that you CHILL with Hell or High Water.