by Rob DiCristino
The opening sequence of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water plays big, open skies against a desolate small-town square. It’s one 360-degree pan that encompasses every-thing America used to believe about itself and everything it failed to accomplish since then. Cheap signage advertises Easy Credit and Low Financing. Scrawled graffiti laments, “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for us.” Christian crosses are worked into the facades of mom-and-pop stores that have long-since closed their doors. This is the story of one-horse towns and no-win scenarios. This is what’s left of the West.
Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are robbing a string of West Texas banks in an effort to pay off the debt owed on their mother’s house before it falls into foreclosure. They hit the smallest branches during just the right early-morning hours, taking only small and loose bills, then drive to an Oklahoma casino to launder the money. That money is then converted into checks made out to the very banks they’ve stolen it from, the very banks that duped their dying mother into a reverse mortgage and snatched their birthright out from under them. They only rob these specific banks, and they never take any money that belongs to real people. They use a different beater car every time, paid for in cash, and then bury each one in the backyard after the heist is over. They’re so meticulous in their planning and execution that they’re leaving Texas Rangers Hamilton and Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) very little to go on in their hunt to bring them down. But Hamilton knows this pattern. These boys aren’t driven by greed or a thirst for killing, he figures. This is the smart work of smart people.
Fargo and No Country for Old Men without getting too operatic for its own good. It spends its running time developing one very relatable thesis before paying it off with the kind of moral complexity it really deserves. It’s a film about division and independence, about race and class, about borders and boundaries. It’s not exceptionally taught or action-packed, but that’s by design. These aren’t expert con men looking for One Last Score or big-city cops delivering Hard Justice. It’s not about twists and turns or dense, complicated plotting. It’s about moments between men sharing a beer on the front porch and what those men will do to protect the people they love. They’re good and bad, us and them.