by Michael B. Hock
There’s a scene towards the middle of Hell or High Water that serves as a microcosm for most of the film. Toby Howard (Chris Pine), fresh from robbing a bank, heavily tips a waitress (Katy Mixon) who he befriended. No real long sob story, just someone who was willing to talk to him a little bit. Her pain is very subtly portrayed by Mixon, who’s small role is one of the most important. Later, when Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (The Dude Jeff Bridges) realizes that the guy she as talking to was one of the people robbing the bank, he tries to confiscate her money. The result is, despite the fact that everyone at this point figured out that Howard was responsible for the bank robberies, the most important witness didn’t see anything.
It’s a complex, important moment a complex, important film.
The aforementioned Pine is one half a bank robbing duo, along with his brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster.) Together they’re robbing a very specific type of bank, trying to get to a certain amount, which we later learn is needed to pay back taxes for a piece of land that the Howard’s own. Oil was discovered on the land, but they won’t be able to get to any of it in time, and so they start robbing banks. Pursuing them is Hamilton along with his long-time partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, who isn’t getting enough credit). The boys work out their own problems while staying one step ahead of the law.
The film asks the very important moral questions of the law vs. doing what is right. This is not a new question, it’s one that humanity has asked since the dawn of time: we set up a series of laws presumably to make society function, but what happens when those laws get in the way of what is actually right? There are many discussions of poverty and how these tiny towns seem to be places where poverty is passed down from generation to generation. It’s even discussed by the Texas Rangers at very interesting point as we get a glimpse of a town that is all but dead at that point.
This is the point in the review where I’d have something snarky to say, because that’s what I do… but this film just hit me in a very complex way. The Howards are played in a very complex manner. Chris Pine does an excellent job as a man that wants to provide for his family, and is going to do so any way possible, and there’s a sadness to Ben Foster’s character as he realizes that there’s only one way this is going to end. He carries that realization through most of the film, clearly helping out his brother.
The relationship between the Rangers is also played of as a brotherhood of sorts with Hamilton mocking Parker. Bridges really nails it as a man who understands why these boys are robbing these banks, and he might even agree with them if he wasn’t so determined in his job. It’s a very difficult role to play off.
So much of what is happening in this film is happening under the surface. A late conversation in which Hamilton confronts Toby is also a metaphor for the film. Hamilton makes no mistake that he knows that Toby is committing the robberies, he just doesn’t have proof. He is confronted with why, and it’s woefully unclear what is going to happen next… will he let it go? Will he follow the law or will he do what was ultimately right, despite the heavy prices.
It’s also a beautiful film that doesn’t spare contrasting the beautiful scenery with the harsh reality of what is happening to these towns as they die out. There’s a lot to be said about this part, while at the same time realizing that it’s something that’s better seen than heard.
This isn’t my typical review where I try to keep it light. There aren’t many light moments that are in this film, as it plods along. I almost feel like there are moments I should have been bored, or that I should have wished for more action, but the tightness of the script and the compelling actors make it so that I needed to keep going, I needed to figure out what was going to happen next.
Simply put: Go see this movie.
Hamlet T. Wondercat says