Robbers And Rangers Collide In 'Hell Or High Water'

Aug 12, 2016
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This is FRESH AIR. The crime film "Hell Or High Water" centers on two masked robbers who clean out small branches of the same bank all over West Texas while a ranger tries to predict which one they'll hit next. Jeff Bridges plays the ranger. And Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the robbers, brothers on a mission to save the family property from foreclosure. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Hell Or High Water" is one of the most haunting neo-Westerns I've ever seen. There are cowboys and Indians and cattle drives and bank robberies and Texas rangers. And the movie builds to a macho faceoff. But the time is the present. And the West - here West Texas - is a different place.

The frontier that gave birth to symbols of rugged individualism is now a home for the collectively dispossessed. And that macho faceoff is downright mournful. In most Westerns, violence seems the only possible resolution. But this one is infused with its director's humanism. You know there will be blood. It's relentlessly foreshadowed. But you pray, somehow, there won't be because it's bound to be absurd and needless.

The director is the English-born David McKenzie, who's been quietly building an impressive career. He finally got attention for the 2013 film "Starred Up," in which the horror was built into the title - the term for what happens to teenagers judged too violent for juvenile lockup and transferred to adult prisons. Here McKenzie is working from a smart, morally tangled script by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote "Sicario."

"Hell Or High Water" takes place in a male world. Females barely factor in the action. It has two protagonists - one a robber, one a law man. The robber is Toby Howard played by Chris Pine. He's a straight-laced rancher and divorced dad who now, in desperation, has enlisted his volatile, ex-con older brother Tanner, played by Ben Foster, in a scheme to get money fast.

They target small branches of the Texas Midlands bank in tiny towns separated by desert. Early on, the brothers sit in a diner where Tanner exhorts Toby to visit his kids - the kids, who were slated to get the money in a roundabout way that their father and uncle have amassed.

BEN FOSTER: (As Tanner) Want a little advice?

CHRIS PINE: (As Toby) No. No, I don't.

FOSTER: (As Tanner) Go see them tomorrow.

PINE: (As Toby) You got any idea how much I owe Debbie in child support?

FOSTER: (As Tanner) You got a knife in your front pocket. Fix that problem right now.

PINE: (As Toby) I can't spare it. You know that.

FOSTER: (As Tanner) Maybe we should hit another branch.

PINE: (As Toby) You know, you talk like we ain't going to get away with this.

FOSTER: (As Tanner) I never met nobody got away with anything ever - you.

PINE: (As Toby) Then why in the hell did you agree to do it?

FOSTER: (As Tanner) 'Cause you asked, little brother.

EDELSTEIN: That line of Tanner's - I never met nobody got away with anything ever - makes the conflict in "Hell Or High Water" more stark. Tanner thinks they'll be brought down. Toby refuses to accept that fate. And I don't think director David McKenzie is a fatalist either. His characters determine their own destinies, for better and worse.

These outlaws are not mythic Western icons, although a number of Texans do express quiet satisfaction that someone is sticking it to the bank. The landscape is strewn with foreclosed houses, farms and boarded-up businesses. It seems as if only Toby hasn't succumbed to the aura of hopelessness and helplessness, though, of course, his course of action is unlawful.

The movie's other protagonist, the lawman, is ranger Marcus Hamilton played by Jeff Bridges. He doesn't think the masked robbers are the usual meth-heads or sociopaths. He thinks correctly. They're looking to take a specific amount of money in a finite amount of time. And he wants to stop them before anyone dies. He knows from descriptions that one of the robbers, Tanner, is a loose cannon.

He also sees lots of ordinary Texans carrying guns and looking mighty eager to use them if the robbers show up. Hamilton is an odd hero when he teases his part-Comanche, part-Mexican partner played by Gil Birmingham. Bridges' hipster inflections and funny accent - his words seemed to drown in his phlegm - take some of the edge off the bigoted quips but not all of it. Hamilton is still on the brink of retirement, struggling to adjust to a world in which Native Americans and Mexicans watch the whites who dispossessed them, now getting dispossessed in turn.

Bridges' quirks are something to behold. And the other performances, even by locals in bit parts, are wonderful. The chameleon Ben Foster plays Tanner as a man who can't stop challenging people, pushing every exchange into the red zone. Chris Pine, meanwhile, uses stillness to give Toby considerable stature. His intensely blue eyes don't soften his face.

They give him the cast of an alien, of someone never at home in the world. The final scene is devastating, a dialogue dead-quiet but bristling with menace, both open-ended and bitterly conclusive. "Hell Or High Water" is a work of broad scale and deep feeling, every moment charged with a terrible clarity.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show - how the Depression transformed American food. It was a time when many Americans were broke and hungry and needed cheap, nutritious and filling food. It's surprising what the experts were recommending in the 1930s as tasty and nutritious. We'll talk with Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." Hope you can join us.

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