Hell or High Water is a modern Western set in the Texas plains, a cultural mash-up where a sports car parks next to a horse and an old ranger (Jeff Bridges) sighs that bankers are stealing the ranches that cowboys worked for 150 years. His half-Mexican, half-Comanche deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) shoots Marcus a side-eye. This land belonged to his people centuries before that. Every owner is doomed to the dust. Just ask the dinosaurs, whose bones are being sucked out of the soil for fuel.
Director David Mackenzie, working from a script by Sons of Anarchy star (and Sicario writer) Taylor Sheridan, wants to capture the American West’s dying breath. He tracks two bank-robbing brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) as they stick up small-town tellers for small payoffs. No one’s got money in this wasteland with its closed shops, barren Main Streets, and billboards for fast cash and debt relief. One empty parking lot is tagged: “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us.” It’s so on-the-nose I went cross-eyed. Still, this saturated vision of poverty allows the movie to operate on dream logic. Why aren’t there any cops when the boys speed off with their loot? Because these are ghost towns and they are the ghosts.
Eventually, Marcus and Alberto give chase. The locals excitedly volunteer to help hang them crooks. They, too, cling to that frontier myth when good guys with guns saved the day instead of getting people killed. But this isn’t Bonnie and Clyde. Tanner and Toby aren’t cool. Their getaway car is a ’90s Ford Taurus. Even robbing banks is passé. But Mackenzie trusts we’re on their side, even after Tanner, who’s been in prison for 10 years, busts a man’s nose.
Foster’s comfortable playing small men on the edge of madness. Here, he’s thickened up and squintier, his live-wire act both more grounded and more deadly. He’s got the script’s one fun pickup line, when he saunters up to a hotel casino clerk and grins, “In your last days in the nursing home, you’ll think of me and giggle.” Pine’s grown a dark mustache, but still looks a whisker too angelic. When they wander into a small diner — the kind so provincial, these area boys are pegged as “out-of-towners” — the waitress (Katy Mixon, charming) is stricken with an instant crush. Toby’s too sweet to manipulate that to his advantage, but the movie sure knows the power of his electric blue eyes.
Much of this is familiar. This solid genre pic salutes its touchstones: the yellow fields, the iron-rod old ladies, the great Southern character actress Dale Dickey, the ranger on the edge of retirement. Bridges has so much twinkle in his cheeks that he seems much younger than his well-earned 66. You don’t see the miles on him until Marcus wraps himself in a blanket and toddles out to watch the sunrise like a big bear. What does feel old is his racism. Maybe Mackenzie, a Brit, doesn’t realize that Midland, Texas, like much of the state, is one-third Latino. Marcus might rag on Alberto for being brown, just like he teases him for his love of Christian rock. But he sure wouldn’t act like he landed from outer space.
The final face-off is worth the slow stretches. We don’t live in an era of white hats and black hats. Maybe we never did. Today, everyone is gray — or, in Mackenzie’s color scheme, faded blue and sad beige — and we’re stuck in the position of rooting for, and fearing, both the law and the lawless. The past is a mirage, the present is pitiful, and the future might be even worse. At least the dinosaurs keep today’s getaway cars running. These dead towns might just be forgotten. Hell or High Water demands they won’t.