Hell Or High Water : The Best American Movie Of The Year -- So Far

You can hear echoes of plenty of other movies in David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water. The most obvious forerunner may be the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men. As in that Oscar winner, Mackenzie presents a story of an old time lawman investigating a crime spree with a firm grasp on time and place, on desolation and displacement.

But Hell or High Water stands out just fine on its own. It is better than the high concept emptiness of Joel Schumacher's Falling Down, another story about an aging lawman in pursuit of a casualty of modern times. It is better than the Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck meandering journey down the center of Americana, Mississippi Grind, another story of a couple of never-weres searching for a small slice of the American dream as they tour the heart of the country. It may not have the epic stature of No Country For Old Men, or the iconic, larger-than-life characters, but for those of you who prefer a smaller, more realistically grounded tale, you might argue that it surpasses the Coens.

I'm not prepared to go that far, but make no mistake, this is some serious filmmaking going on the midlands of West Texas. The Howard brothers, Toby and Tanner, have a plan. They need to raise about $50,000 within a week in order to pay off the debt on their family farm. To do it, they embark on a crime spree, knocking over small banks, taking only small bills from the drawers. This means they'll have to commit more robberies, but it also means they will not encounter the same level of security or attract the same level of attention that they would if they went for one big score. It is a patient plan.

The attention they do attract comes from a couple of Texas Rangers, Marcus and Alberto. Marcus is old and about to retire. Alberto is half Mexican, half Native American. Both are ripe for verbal darts. Mackenzie's story cuts back and forth between the brothers and the cops. There is plenty of action during the robberies. Taylor Sheridan's screenplay provides a lot of well-aimed barbs to provide humor as well.

But what Hell or High Water really has going for it is atmosphere. It is positively dripping with a decaying American heartland. A story of the fewer and fewer haves, and the ever growing have-nots. The Nick Cave/Warren Ellis musical score and the well-chosen country/folk/rock soundtrack helps a lot. Giles Nuttgens' stark cinematography helps as well.

Sheridan has given his actors a great script to work with and they nail it. We may expect brilliant work from Jeff Bridges as the crusty old Marcus, and if you have ever seen Ben Foster, you can't be surprised by his Tanner, the more unhinged of the brothers. Chris Pine and Gil Birmingham are equally strong as Toby and Alberto. And at least three actresses, who are only on screen for a total of ten minutes combined, create indelible characters. Veteran Dale Dickey, as an ironically sweet bank employee, Katy Mixon as a lonely waitress who flirts with Toby, and especially Margaret Bowman (who acted in No Country...), as the most curmudgeonly waitress on the planet, are testament to where this movie's heart resides. These are the workers of middle America, struggling through hard, unglamorous jobs, and barely keeping up with the tide that continuously raises the price of milk and rent.

In one of the most telling scenes, the rough and tumble Tanner has been gambling in an Oklahoma casino. He has gotten into a little tiff with a stoic and imposing Comanche at the poker table. When informed that "Comanche" means "enemy," Tanner asks his new acquaintance, "You know what that makes me?" The large Native American stares down at the white man and says, "An enemy." "No," Tanner replies. "A Comanche."

It's that identification of tribe that is most on Sheridan and Mackenzie's mind here. Your tribe is not what you were born into. It's the place that the events of the day have deposited you. For anyone puzzled by the current shifting in American political bases, this is required viewing.

Later, Alberto explains to Marcus, as they sit outside a small dusty diner, how the land they are watching has changed hands many times over the years. And it will continue to do so. Winners and losers will be re-aligned. Currently, it is the bankers who are the winners. There is a pretty strong implication in Hell or High Water that this too may be a fleeting condition.

The movie certainly has sympathy for its outlaws, but it does not sugar-coat them. Tanner is violent and cruel. He is a borderline sociopath. It is a testament to Foster's skill that he can humanize him without softening that anti-social edge. And there is violence -- shocking bursts of unexpected violence. It starts small, in the opening sequence, and progresses to cruel and tragic proportions. This is a movie with humor. A lot of it. But it never loses sight of how serious its stakes are.

And it ends on a virtually perfect note that I will not give away other than to say that sometimes no resolution is a resolution in its own way.

It is appropriate that Bridges has a prominent role in Hell or High Water. Forty years ago, as a young man, he played the roles that Foster and Pine occupy here. In one of the true American masterpieces, The Last Picture Show, Bridges and Timothy Bottoms were the vital young men looking for vitality as their Texas town turned to dust before their eyes. Ben Johnson was the old man who watched them. A few years later, Bridges and Sam Waterston embarked on a stealing rampage, this time in Montana, as Slim Pickens' grizzled old lawman pursued them in Rancho Deluxe. But Rancho Deluxe was a wistful comedy, sure of its depiction of troubled times, but never deadly. Some forty years later, Bridges is now the grizzled one. Only now the guns are more powerful, and the world has grown colder.

American film has largely abdicated its role as a serious social commentator, especially when commenting on the people who don't own things. Every so often, a movie still comes along which tells the story of those struggling to maintain their grasp on their small piece of America. In recent years, movies like Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, and Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes have dared to tackle these tales. These are among the greatest and most important American movies of the last decade. Hell or High Water can stand right along side them. It's the kind of story we need to relish.