Hell or High Water (2016)
***No plot spoilers***
I finally got around to watching this DVD, another of my birthday presents from last March.
West Texas, in the 21st century. Much like Texas in the 1930s, with ordinary people caught up in another Depression Era. Sleepy, dusty towns. Shops closed up, streets almost deserted. People consumed by debts they cannot pay, and banks calling in loans on property. If it wasn’t for the clothes and the cars, I could almost have been watching a version of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.
One of the Howard brothers has inherited the failing family ranch. Oil has been found on the property, and the local bank is keen to foreclose on the mortgage so they can get their hands on the oil wealth. The brothers need $40,000 to pay off the bank, but they don’t have it. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is the solid, reliable son, left at home to care for his sick mother when his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) was in jail. He got the place in her will, but has no cash to make a go of it. He is divorced, and can see little future for his two growing sons. So he comes up with a plan.
The brothers will embark on a series of bank robberies, hitting small branches of the same bank in quick succession, and taking small amounts of money that will not attract the attention of the FBI. But Tanner is not so solid and reliable. He is a career criminal, impulsive, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, he wants to help his younger brother, and his bravado is the key to their initial success in the bank raids.
Those raids attract the attention of the Texas Rangers, and two of them take the case. One is the dependable Marcus Hamilton, (Jeff Bridges) close to the end of his career, with one month to go before compulsory retirement. His partner is Alberto, (Gil Birmingham) a family man, half Mexican, half Comanche. Marcus uses his experience to plot the course of the robberies, and his unorthodox techniques see him closing in on the brothers, as their spree continues. The four men seem destined to meet in the eventual climax. With no spoilers, that’s it for the story.
This is unmistakably a modern Western. Despite the cars and the motels, it feels like a cowboy film throughout, and references many along the way. The robbers with a cause, the dogged lawman on their trail, and the assorted characters met by them on the way. The film excels on the small details. Waitresses in shabby restaurants are memorable. Bank staff who call the robbers ‘Sir’, because Texans are polite. Gun-toting civilians, in a state where it seems as if every man carries a firearm. Bleak farmsteads, closed-down businesses, and roads that apparently lead to nowhere. The allegory comes thick and fast, but the film is no worse for that.
The robberies and set-piece shoot-outs are just right. Not too showy, all too believable in execution. Some locals are keen to help the lawmen, whilst others regard the fleeing robbers as Robin Hood characters, with the banks deserving to be raided. Bridges is 68 years old now, but looks and acts older than those years. His voice is so gruff, at times he is unintelligible, sounding as if he is speaking under water. But he is ideal for the part. A man worn out from a long career, yet reluctant to give up on it just yet. On paper, he is the star of the film, but for me Ben Foster took the laurels. His role of the wayward brother with a soft centre was pitched to perfection, and it felt like watching a real person on screen, not someone acting.
Good locations, a tight script, and amazingly good casting in the small character parts lifted this film high above many similar offerings. Despite being released in 2016, this felt like a film from the 1970s, and I mean that as a compliment. I liked it a lot.