Here’s a genuine sleeper—a manhunt movie that blends action, comedy, drama and even a smidgen of social commentary into an almost perfect package, offering excitement, laughs and a dollop of poignancy to go along with them, while appealing to popular anger against the economic power brokers that seem intent on destroying people’s lives. One can imagine pulp-masters like Jim Thompson or Fredric Brown smiling appreciatively at “Hell Or High Water,” which matches, in narrative tone if not visual style, the best B-movie noirs of the forties and fifties, but adds a dash of sixties and seventies roughness to the mix.
The film begins with an early-morning robbery at a small-town bank in West Texas—a sequence that expertly marries menace and dark humor. The robbers are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). Toby, a depressed, divorced man with an angry ex-wife and two sons he rarely sees, has recently nursed his dying mother through her long and painful last days and is on the verge of losing the family’s sadly dilapidated ranch to bank debt. (He’s not alone: the landscape the brothers travel through is full of “For Sale” signs.) Tanner is a volatile ex-con who enjoys terrorizing his victims and racing away from the scene of the crime.
The rationale behind the robbery—and another that follows, at a bank in a second small town suffering economic distress—will gradually be revealed by Taylor Sheridan’s clever script, but the plot quickly jumps to the investigation of the initial crime by crusty Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is of course only days from unwanted retirement, and his Comanche-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom he affectionately taunts with jabs about his lineage and ability. Marcus intuits the method behind the brothers’ spree, but the motive will elude him until after their final heist, a much more violent affair in a larger town that leads to a wild chase and a stand-off on a mountain ridge reminiscent of classic Western finales; and though what follows brings down the energy level, it makes for a very satisfying conclusion.
With uncanny skill Sheridan and director David Mackenzie unveil the intricacies of the plot by juxtaposing scenes of Toby and Tanner—committing their crimes, reminiscing about their family’s past, driving to Oklahoma to launder their stolen money at Indian casinos (even visiting a lawyer in the process)—with those of Marcus and Alberto as they stake out a third bank Marcus expects to be robbed. Deliciously calibrated set-pieces are situated into each set of duets. A stop at a gas station reveals that Toby is no less quick to violence than Tanner under the right circumstances, and a verbal run-in with a gun-toting old customer at one bank is a delight. (One observation that comes up repeatedly is the habit of carrying firearms among many locals, and their quickness to resort to them.) On the other hand, the quarrel Marcus and Alberto have about watching a televangelist on a motel TV, and the irascibility with which Marcus explains his understanding of the spree to his partner late in the game are equally winning.
Even better is a deliberately-drawn contrast between waitresses each pair encounters during their travels. One episode finds Toby and Tanner meeting a sympathetic young woman in a diner, with whom Toby strikes up a nice conversation (the large tip he leaves becomes a running gag). The other involves an encounter Marcus and Alberto have with a flinty old hag in what would once have been referred to as a one-horse town. Both are great sequences, but also point to the deeper themes the movie repeatedly raises, the first pointing to the waitress’ own desperate economic situation, and the second giving Alberto a chance to open up about the treatment of Native Americans in the past and that of ordinary folk in the present. In neither case do the money men come off well.
Everything is enlivened not only by Mackenzie’s vivid direction, the elegance of Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography (luxuriating in the wide-open fields and sweeping mountainous vistas of the New Mexico locations), the sharpness of Jake Roberts’ editing, and the authentic, lived-in look of Tom Duffield’s production design and Malgosia Turzanska’s costumes. The brooding score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is also a solid plus.
But it’s the performances that take the film into the realm of the exceptional. Pine makes Toby a soulful, melancholy presence with a short fuse, while Foster, whose most recent roles have tended to muzzle his natural ferocity, breaks loose with a turn of raw power. Together they bring a touch of early Sam Shepard—“True West,” for example—to their scenes. Bridges offers a career highlight with a portrait that joyously mashes together his Rooster Cogburn and his Bad Blake, and the deadpan Birmingham makes a perfect, dignified foil for him. And while Marin Ireland is undercut by the one-note nature of her part as Toby’s ex-wife, there are plum brief appearances by the likes of Dale Dickey as the first bank clerk the boys encounter, Buck Taylor as that sharp-tongued old bank customer, Katy Mixon as that spunky young waitress, Paul Howard Smith as a well-weathered witness, and Margaret Bowman as the waitress who has nothing but T-bone steaks to offer. Scripter Sheridan has a cameo as a cowboy who thinks time might have passed him by.
Mackenzie’s movie, while much less violent, may call to mind another recent bit of noirish Texana, Jim Mickle’s 2014 “Cold in July.” But though that movie was very good in its pulpy way, this one is even better. Though citing the title may be going too far, you should make every effort to take a seat on this thrill ride.