There’s something refreshing about a simple setup. Here’s what a character wants/needs; here’s what’s preventing him from getting it; here’s why we care. You can pare most stories down to something this basic, but few arrive already that pared down. However, Hell or High Water does everything else so well, the gaps are filled in and a simple setup becomes a rich, rewarding experience.
Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) rob banks in west Texas. A pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) pursues them. Here’s what the characters want/need: money. Here’s what’s preventing them from getting it: the law. Here’s why we care: …we eventually get to that.
This last part is what sets Hell or High Water apart from being essentially a retelling of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) but with brothers robbing banks instead of lovers. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – or at least the fictionalized versions from Arthur Penn’s movie – robbed banks at first as a form of flirting and later as a way to get back at the banks for their perceived role in the Great Depression (as the movie takes place in 1934). And though the Howard boys aren’t Robin Hooding quite as directly as Bonnie and Clyde before them, the parallels between the Great Depression of the early 1930s and the Great Recession of the late 2000s are utilized. These parallels are emphasized by the west Texas setting, which – a few obvious technological advances aside – appears relatively unchanged since the 1930s. But the exact reason of why Tanner and Toby are doing what they’re doing – and the manner in which they’re doing it – eventually reveals itself in a slowly unraveling quasi-mystery that Bonnie and Clyde doesn’t have, and once that reason is revealed, it adds a welcome layer of nuance and moral ambiguity to the otherwise familiar story.
And this is a familiar story, even beyond the Bonnie and Clyde parallels. One of the brothers is reckless and unpredictable while the other is cautious, hesitant, and morally-grounded. One of the Texas Rangers is literally days from retirement, out for one last case. There are more than a couple instances of visual parity, showing that the cops and criminals are not so different. Yadda yadda yadda, you’ve seen movies. But pepper in some interesting cinematography from DP Giles Nuttgens, a great score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (similar but slightly inferior to their masterful work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and some fantastic performances (expect to hear a lot about Jeff Bridges in the Supporting Acting categories come award season), and the result is more than worthwhile.
More than anything else, what sets Hell or High Water apart is the humor. It’s consistent, effective, charming, and quite surprising to find in a movie like this. For the first two-thirds, the movie has a lighter-than-expected tone, until suddenly it doesn’t, offering a very effective contrast when the stakes are inevitably raised in the final third.
As evidenced by The Town, Inside Man, and the opening of The Dark Knight (and countless others), there’s something inherently compelling about bank robberies (probably the huge stakes, the unpredictability, and the stressful time-sensitive aspect). Hell or High Water delivers the thrills inherent to stories like this – regardless of how familiar – but more importantly, it’s just good filmmaking, even if it’s not earth-shattering. There’s a great scene where the two Rangers stop in at a tiny diner that only serves T-bones and iced tea with or without green beans, and that’s perfectly good enough for the fine people of west Texas, thank you very much, because they don’t need anything too fancy.
When the simple T-bone is this good, neither do we.