Review by Allan L. Branson
If you are seeking the typical cops and robbers, good guy solves the case and makes the arrest movie, look elsewhere. Set in a dry, hot, flat Texas town, two brothers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) target the chain of banks that seeks to foreclose on their dead mother’s property. Realistically portrayed, bank robberies can be a dicey business in a state where carrying a gun by its citizens was a birthright long before it became written law. While the saying “Don’t mess with Texas” began as a slogan for an anti-littering campaign, it evolved into that state’s credo of machismo and swagger.
While this is a tale about family and redemption it is also a story of that state’s premiere law enforcement agency, the legendary Texas Rangers, whose motto “One Ranger, One Riot” is not considered hyperbole. A quick google search will reveal several movies as well as actual tales chronicling the exploits of this no-nonsense agency that remains the pride of the Lone Star State.
Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is the Ranger, with less than liberal leanings regarding issues of race or so it seems. Perhaps he’s just a curmudgeon who’s seen too much of the bad in people. His limited world view is borne out through the barely comical interactions with his Mexican/Native American, partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Think of the iconic American western characters, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in a modern-day setting, with the latter, while still deferential, tired of his partner’s condescension and verbalizes as much. And halfway through the movie so too are we the audience. There is a reckoning which will reveal Ranger Hamilton’s true heart. Bridges as a good “ole boy” Texan harkens back to his truly breakout role as an alcoholic country singer in the film Crazy Heart.
The action in Hell or High Water is balanced against the emotional content, not too fast but ongoing and only when required to move the story along. The empathy we feel for Chris Pine as the anti-hero is based on an emotional need we have to see an otherwise good man succeed. This is shared, intuitively by diner waitress, Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon) who refuses to help the know it all Texas Ranger Hamilton. Her interaction with Pine as Toby Howard suggests a subtle sexual hunger and maternal need to protect him. It is an illuminating and convincing stretch for an actress usually cast in comedies like the HBO series Eastbound and Down.
Pine eschews his oft times adventurous, dashing hero role for a noble, divorced “white trash” Texan who realizes he hasn’t done everything right in his life. Foster portrays the obliging brother just out of prison, who full of empathy, still enjoys the adrenaline rush of law breaking. And while he may be a bit more seasoned by a hardened life than his brother, both are equally ruthless and willing to die for their cause.
It should be said of Foster while rarely a leading man he has always played strong supporting roles, from his haunting “Renfield” like character in the vampiric 30 Days of Night, to the manic martial arts, ass kicking sibling of the victim in Alpha Dog. Some actors are electric, their energy is felt and they are a pleasure to watch. Foster’s intense acting is like a dramatic car crash where the viewer can’t look away. If there is a Shakespearean tragic hero in all of this, it is Jeff Bridges’ character Marcus Hamilton whose tragic flaw is that while he may or may not get his man, he loses a large part of himself in the process.