Hell or High Water — a “love poem” to the Lone Star State according to its screenwriter, Waco-area native Taylor Sheridan — starts with a swirling image of a barren West Texas parking lot. The panorama reveals a town largely frozen in time, left behind by modernization, then gives way to a scene of a duo of masked outlaws at the Midlands Bank.
Equal parts picturesque and picaresque, Hell or High Water, which was filmed in New Mexico and opens August 12, combines enchanting cinematography with a riveting plot that prods a question as old as capitalism itself: Who are the real thieves? A pair of poor brothers emptying regional banks at gunpoint, or a faceless banking system foreclosing on their family farm? Throughout, the bandits guzzle Lone Star and the cops stalking them opt for Shiner Bock, but distinguishing the good guys from the sinister ones isn’t so cut and dry. Rather, we might find ourselves championing the lesser of two evils.
Sheridan’s first screenplay Sicario — a mercilessly violent drug war drama that garnered three Oscar nominations last year — delivers viewers the same uneasy choice. In both films, cheering on anti-hero protagonists because they seem less heinous than their enemies presents viewers with an unsettling decision — one that is perhaps familiar to Bernie Sanders devotees now staring down the barrel of a Trump presidency.
In Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, Chris Pine propels his career to a new frontier with his arresting portrayal of Toby, the mastermind of the heists and a gorgeous, ethically-inclined cowboy singularly motivated by his obligations as a father. Jeff Bridges performs marvelously as the aging Texas Ranger, Marcus, who is on Toby’s trail. In part through Toby’s role as dad and brother, the film mines a theme — tenderness among men in a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine realm — exhibited in the smashing 2013 British prison drama Starred Up, also directed by Mackenzie.
But a few actresses, who play steely-nerved waitresses, also manage to shine brightly. Margaret Bowman’s menu militancy — giving orders to the stupefied lawmen while ostensibly taking theirs — and her ridicule of a New York tourist who once dared to order fish at her steakhouse, comprise the film’s funniest moments. Katy Mixon plays a rebellious server who refuses to furnish authorities with stolen bills given to her as tip money, contending they will pay half her mortgage.
Sympathy for the bank plunderers pervades this gun-toting, bravado-rich, anti-authoritarian microcosm of likely Trump voters. The writing is on the wall, literally, with graffiti in the opening shot declaring: “Three Tours in Iraq But No Bailout For People Like Me.” Though no candidate is invoked on screen, the film supplies a jolting reminder of where the progressive left and Trump’s core constituency share a vision, and where they savagely differ.
An underwhelming subplot — considering that the screenplay’s initial title, Comancheria, recalls the seizure of the Comanche nation’s land — consists of Marcus’ relationship with his partner in crime-stopping. San Antonio-born actor Gil Birmingham ably performs the role of Alberto, Marcus’ sidekick of Cherokee ancestry. Marcus needles Alberto with jokes mocking his indigenous heritage, which ultimately provokes an outburst: The land for many miles around them had, 150 years before, belonged entirely to the Cherokee nation, Alberto says, “until the grandparents of these folks took it, and now it’s been taken from them.” He signals the bank they’re staking out: “Except it ain’t no army doing it, it’s those sons of bitches right there.”
The film overlooks a piece of Texas history ripe for injection into the story — the Texas Rangers deployment of racial violence to dispossess rightful landowners. (A recent exhibit at the Bullock Museum in Austin documented the Rangers’ campaign of murder against non-Anglo civilians in the 1910s, describing it as “some of the worst state-sanctioned violence in U.S. history.”) Nor does the film grapple with the lingering white supremacist attitudes that inform Marcus’ racial insults, which, evidently, still delight some film-goers. In the anonymity of our dark theater, Marcus’ barbs — that Alberto’s a “half-breed” prone to “whooping like a beast” — triggered hearty laughter. It’s clear that Marcus cares for Alberto, but his crude expression of affection is tough to bear.
The film’s prevailing insight on race is reductive: Decades of assimilation effectively dethroned the Lords of the Plains and today Comanche identity consists of no more than a bellicose state of mind. Toby’s hothead brother Tanner, in a chest-to-chest stand-off with an indigenous man over a poker table, avows with Anglo arrogance to be a Comanche, not by virtue of lineage but through pugnacity. It’s an identity he invokes earlier in the film to psych himself up before a heist.
A striking study in cultural contrast — the old ways of the Comanche versus the brand of belligerence that anti-hero Tanner espouses to be Comanche — unfolds in what must be one of the finest convenience-store scenes ever filmed: A Native American man saddles his horse, trotting away from the corner store just as a garish, green sports car pulls up, blaring metal music. Within seconds, the driver brandishes his gun at Tanner. Impeccably staged, the uncut action sequence turns awesomely reminiscent, in timing and movement, of a Tony Jaa film.
All in all, Hell or High Water offers a magnetic, swift-moving tale tailored for Texans with a soundtrack of Lone Star troubadours — Waylon Jennings, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Townes Van Zandt and Scott H. Biram— to prove it.