Hell or High Water is about robbery. The more overt way this is true is obvious. The film begins with two men (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), brothers and partners, engaged in armed robbery of a bank, striking early in the morning and only taking smaller, unbundled bills to minimize both the import of the crime and the likelihood they will be caught. But the film is also about the way that bank has robbed them, preying on their family in a manner that ultimately sets the desperate, felonious act into motion. And it is also about the spiritual robbery of grief, brought about either by mourning a death or some other lost fragment of a valued life.
That might sound heady, but it’s not. The film is a wryly entertaining depiction of small-scale criminals and the similarly modestly appointed authorities who hunt them. It’s reminiscent of the hard nugget crime films of the early nineteen-nineties, directed by the likes of Carl Franklin and John Dahl, before Quentin Tarantino came along and exploded the notion of storytelling modesty, especially once he clearly fell in love with the sound of his own needy provocations. Director David Mackenzie guides Hell or High Water with a nicely attentive sense of place, making the whole of West Texas into a ghost town that hasn’t come to terms with its demise, like one of the glum, confused spirits pitied by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
The clearest strength of the film is the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario. While properly focuses on the rigors of his narrative, Sheridan smartly makes room for telling details and little grace notes, especially around the fringes. The film is peppered with fleeting characters who carry entire lives and cultures with them. (There must be some acting award out there that can be bestowed upon Margaret Bowman for her memorable single-scene turn as the no-nonsense waitress of the T-Bone Cafe.) The script is awake to the ways the vagaries of current society would infiltrate the parts of the story that could have otherwise been transplanted whole from an old western. Bank robberies are complicated by cell phones and good old boys taken advantage of their state’s gun-happy laws. Skepticism of authority makes it difficult for the two law enforcement officers on the case (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, who develop a prickly rapport that’s a pleasure to watch).
Admirably, Sheridan doesn’t coast on comfortable expectations about how such stories flow. He honors the basic truths and even the useful tropes, but digs around for useful nuance and presses in new wrinkles. Hell or High Water is occasionally a little heavy-footed in its political points and its foreshadowing. That’s forgivable, arguably even suited to the timeless weariness of its themes. A setting sun casts long shadows. There’s no real cause to hope for them to be downplayed.