“Hell or High Water” is one magnificently self-aware film. There is a strong Coen brothers vibe to both the plot and the dialogue (if “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” were forced to mate, the offspring would turn out a lot like this), which is why the casting of Jeff Bridges is a stroke of genius. As a Coen veteran, he understands the material, and is able to not just humanize a character that would be monstrous in the hands of a lesser actor – he’s able to make the character charming and likable.
In the bleak, seemingly waterless landscape of west Texas, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) begin the day by robbing two small banks of all of their chump change. The Howards are in danger of losing their farm to the very bank that they’re robbing; the plan is to pay off their debt with the bank’s own money and put the land in a trust to benefit Toby’s children. Due to the amount of money being stolen, the FBI isn’t interested in investigating the case, but Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) has a week until he retires, so he drags his reluctant partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) along for one last rodeo.
There aren’t a lot of moving parts here, and that is a good thing. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) keeps his characters focused on their respective prizes, with no unnecessary side plots about poor people foolishly spending their newfound riches, a common trap to these types of stories. The most pleasant surprise is how funny the movie is, and not solely of the pitch-black variety. There are some gut-busting moments here. The waitresses, in particular, bring the funny in spades.
The idea of an actor other than Bridges playing Marcus Hamilton is unthinkable. Hamilton is a strange blend of The Dude, Bridges’ character in “The Big Lebowski,” and Tommy Lee Jones’ soon-to-retire sheriff in “No Country for Old Men.” He’s serious, yet unconventional. He also never resists an opportunity to hit Parker with some ethnic slur about his racial background, starting with his Native American ancestry. It’s clear that he’s just busting Parker’s chops, and that he doesn’t mean a word he’s saying, but it still takes a while to laugh with the jokes instead of at them due to their offensive nature. This is surely the point, but still.
Pine might be the box office star of the three leads, and Bridges is the glue that holds everything together, but this is Foster’s movie from start to finish. He has the best lines and a wild-eyed stare that leads larger men to stand down, but there is much more happening behind his eyes. There’s an unforgettable scene where Toby wakes up Tanner, and you see years of post-traumatic stress acting out in a matter of seconds, followed by a darkly humorous acknowledgement that he mistook his brother’s intentions. It’s both funny and heartbreaking.
Sheridan’s stories aren’t exactly counterculture, but there’s a wary, suspicious nature to his work – a nudge to question authority and the way things are. This object of his wrath this time around (banks with predatory lending practices) is admittedly an easy and timely target, but also a worthy one. Indeed, one wonders if the leanness of “Hell or High Water” (it clocks in at 102 minutes) was fueled by a drive to hit the theaters while the topic was still hot. Whatever the reason, this is a solid, expertly paced and well-acted film.