Hell or High Water takes a story that's been told many times before and makes it feel vital. Thank goodness for the assured hand of director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), a bright screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and a top-notch cast including Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham. Together they have crafted the best film I've seen so far this year.
Set in contemporary West Texas, the film introduces a pair of bandits robbing a small bank. When they tool away in a beat up car and pull the ski masks off their faces, we meet Toby (Pine), divorced father of two, and his older brother Tanner (Foster), who recently did a stint in prison.
I won't go into detail on why the brothers start robbing banks. Suffice to say that Toby has a plan to give his two sons the financial security he and Tanner never had. Over the years there has been tension between Toby and hotheaded Tanner, but they are united now – for however long now lasts.
Investigating the bank robberies falls to Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Birmingham). Marcus sees a puzzle in the crimes and begins assembling the pieces, while teasing Alberto about his Mexican/Comanche ancestry.
So why doesn't Alberto punch his partner in the nose over the racist wisecracks? The movie never verbalizes an explanation – all we know is that the two lawmen are as close to each other as the bank robbing brothers, and that the brutal repartee is a longstanding part of it.
The four lead actors are excellent, with Bridges turning in his best performance since True Grit, while the setting is an equally important character. Poverty-stricken West Texas (played here by New Mexico) offers beauty and desolation in abundance. Maybe overabundance. I understand how important it is that we know that the people are poor and that many of them were screwed by the banks, but there were times when I felt like grabbing the director and saying, “Back off a little, we get it!”
That's pretty much all I have to complain about here. Hell or High Water takes an utterly predictable plot and makes it feel new. The drama is genuine and the action scenes are corkers, especially a shootout near the end. There's something happening here.