First published by Real Crime Magazine
“You act as though we’re going to get away with this,” says Toby (Chris Pine).
“I’ve never met nobody got away with anything ever,” replies his older brother Tanner (Ben Foster).
‘This’ is a spate of bank robberies that they have been carrying out together across Texas. Nothing fancy, mind you – they are emptying the tills rather than the safes, and only in the small banks of hayseed towns. Tanner is a career criminal – a hot-headed parricide who has spent half his life in acts of larceny, and half behind bars. He is involved in this current spree because it is what he does (and enjoys), but also because Toby has asked him for help. More reflective, and with a hitherto clean record, Toby is the brains behind this operation, as he tries to secure a better future for his own estranged sons.
If the brothers’ exchange, coming early in the film, sounds fatalistic, setting them on a trajectory that both know is doomed from the start, then their actions unfold in backroads communities where neglect, debt and foreclosure are rampant, and hope is in short supply. On their trail is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled Texas Ranger just weeks away from a retirement he does not want, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). While Marcus may endlessly rib Alberto for his half-Native American, half-Mexican background, it is Alberto who points out that in this abandoned neck of the backwoods, all the one-time white colonial masters have now had their own property, land and livelihoods taken from them – by the banks.
A hybrid of crime drama and neo-western directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water uses its half-breed genre thrills to expose an American dream long since soured by recession, and running on empty – with all hope for the future rooted once again in the kind of rapine and murder on which the modern nation was historically built. DP Giles Nuttgens’ mobile lensing shoots Texas’ wide open vistas like an oater’s epic landscapes, while also taking in the Iraq veterans’ graffiti and credit ad billboards that serve as signposts for more contemporary socieconomic ills.
The brothers visit an Oklahoma casino to launder their stolen cash – and sure enough, even back across the state line they are still playing a game where the house usually wins. From the outset, tragedy is inscribed in these brothers’ escapades, but along the way there is also much witty dialogue – and by rebelling against the bank and betting against the system, they become, for all their flaws, today’s version of the great American outlaw hero, morally murky yet mythic.
@ Anton Bitel