While a movie needs a strong story and distinct characters to be good, it's often the addition of a sense of time and place that makes a movie great. Think of New York in Woody Allen's Manhattan, Santa Barbara wine country in Sideways, the Los Angeles of Pulp Fiction, or the Minnesota accents and tundra of Fargo. In the case of Hell Or High Water, the place is West Texas and the time is now as two brothers embark on a weeklong bank-robbing spree with a Texas Ranger trying to guess their next move. But don't for a second think that Hell Or High Water is just another crime thriller. Because it's that sense of time and place -- along with tack-sharp dialogue, distinct characters, and excellent performances -- that elevates Hell Or High Water to be the best film of 2016 so far. Watch the trailer for Hell Or High Water below.
Hell Or High Water starts with brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) committing back-to-back bank robberies. But investigating Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) notes that the curious specificity of these robberies -- where only Texas Midlands bank branches are targeted during early morning hours for small scores -- does not seem to be the work of gang members or desperate drug addicts. And he's right -- while the older Tanner is a career criminal/screw-up who revels in the rush of power he feels through lawlessness, Toby's goals are much nobler. Having nursed Toby and Tanner's sick mother through her last months, Toby now seeks to pay back Texas Midlands' predatory loans that threaten to claim the family ranch in a week. That land (and the oil beneath it) may be the only way for Toby to finally lift his family out of poverty, providing a future for his two sons while making amends with his estranged ex-wife (Marin Ireland).
As a film, Hell Or High Water is near flawless. Giles Nuttgens' cinematography captures the stark beauty of Texas' flat landscape and big skies, as well as the sunbaked emptiness of small towns that are being slowly emptied of businesses and inhabitants. The spare score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis -- with additional songs by Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, and Colter Wall -- aptly reflects this beauty and loneliness. And despite being British, director David Mackenzie confidently handles the film's every Texas-specific nuance like a corn-fed native.
As a crime thriller, Hell Or High Water is extremely effective. The robberies are tense and unpredictable, especially when combined with Toby's inexperience, Tanner's irascibility, and the wannabe-cowboy gun culture of West Texas, where any bank patron could be armed and ready to take the law into their own hands. While it's somewhat of a cliché that the Howard brothers are Marcus' last case before his impending retirement, it's Marcus' decades of experience and insight into human nature and the criminal mind that makes him a compelling detective, giving him a chance to guess the brothers' motives and head them off at their next score. And when the film arrives at its final showdown, it has the intensity and fireworks of a smaller-budget, country-fied version of the closing shootout in Michael Mann's Heat.
From the smallest role to the biggest, every character in Hell Or High Water is so well-written and well-acted that you get a sense of every character's personality and the life story that informs it below the surface. Chris Pine gives what is likely the best performance of his career so far as the quiet, determined, yet penitent Toby, showing how capable Pine is of transcending his movie star looks when given a great script and director to work with. Ben Foster manages to be both loathsome and likable as Tanner, balancing the menace of an unrepentant criminal with a psychopath's charisma and screw-the-world attitude. Jeff Bridges gives his best, most likable performance in years in spite of the constant racist jabs he delivers to his long-suffering Mexican/Native-American partner, Alberto, played by a terrific Gil Birmingham.
But it's the attention given to the film's smaller characters, and dozens of other details, that helps give Hell Or High Water it's sense of time and place, thus elevating it from a great movie to one of the year's best. Every role -- whether it's an aging bank patron (Buck Taylor), some wanna-be cowboy vigilantes, or possibly the most ornery waitress in America (Margaret Bowman) -- tells you unequivocally that you aren't just in Texas, but West Texas, where the cowboy ethos and distrust of authority and outsiders runs particularly strong.
Nearly everything in Hell Or High Water seems to be about ways of life disappearing, primarily because of the economy, and the resignation of those seemingly powerless to stop it. From the film's first frames, as Toby and Tanner's car creeps towards their first job, we see graffiti reading "3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us". This is just the first of many signs -- including billboards reading "Debt Relief", "Closing Soon", and "In Debt? Fast Cash!" -- that illustrate how the post-bailout recovery has left many small towns in shambles. For too many, making a decent living in a small town now seems like a thing of the past.
And there are other indicators that the world West Texans know may soon be gone for good. A man mounting a horse tied outside a gas station. A rancher driving cattle who acknowledges that his children are smart to flee the family business. A witness who observes that the concept of robbing banks and getting away with it seems antiquated in the 21st century. A Comanche casino patron who ruefully admits that his people no longer rule the plains. And virtually everything that Marcus is and symbolizes is going away. Not only is old age forcing him into retirement, but even the idea of an old, grizzled Texas lawman/cowboy seems to no longer have a place in the modern world. And while Marcus still considers the racist jokes he lobs at Alberto to be politically incorrect displays of affection, it's clear from Alberto's reactions that he doesn't take them lightly or find them funny.
But unlike the supporters of Donald Trump, these West Texans don't blame their misfortunes on Mexicans, Muslims, or Hillary Clinton. They know that the real villains are the banks, which Alberto notes are now snatching up land from white people the way white people once stole the land from the American Indians. The Howard brothers are willing to fight the bank for their land, but everyone else can only cling to a sense of white racial superiority ("You ain't even Mexicans!" a bank patron tells the brothers during a robbery) or, more importantly, their guns. It's through guns that so many characters in Hell Or High Water are able to hold onto their macho cowboy identities, their belief in frontier justice, and a feeling of control and capability in an increasingly uncertain America.
Hell Or High Water has gotten a lot of comparisons to the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, another crime thriller set deep in the heart of Texas that's full of quirky supporting/bit roles (including the aforementioned Margaret Bowman). But while lacking the pedigree of a Coen brothers film shot by Roger Deakins, I believe Hell Or High Water's focus on realism and topical sociopolitical issues puts it in another category. No Country For Old Men is great, but Hell Or High Water is both great and important right now.