Hell or High Water is one of the most absorbing games of cat and mouse you’ll ever see on the silver screen. This is largely because the cats and mice in question are all empathetic characters. There really aren’t any good guys or bad guys here. That’s not to say everyone’s actions are justified, but the audience can identify with each person’s motivation. We come to care about all of the people involved in this tale of money, crime, and brotherhood, which makes it hard to accept the notion that matters won’t work out for everybody.Chris Pine gives one of his best performances as Toby Howard, a divorced father of two living in West Texas. Toby needs to get his hands on some fast cash or else he’ll lose his farm, which is overflowing with oil. Ben Foster is equally strong as Tanner, Toby’s brother who’s had his fair share of run-ins with the law. Together, the brothers devise a plan to rob the bank that’s going to foreclose on their property. Both Pine and Foster have a natural brotherly rapport, with Toby being the levelheaded brains of the operation and Tanner being the reckless wild card. Despite their differences, you can tell these partners in crime will do anything for one another, especially for the sake of family.
On the right side of the law is Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger close to retirement. Married to the job, he can’t help but leap into action when a string of bank robberies break out. Character actor Gil Birmingham is given a chance to shine as Alberto Parker, Marcus’ Native American partner. While not bonded by blood, these two characters practically feel related. Both men constantly take shots at each other, as Marcus makes casually racist jokes about Alberto’s ethnicity while Alberto pokes fun at Marcus’ old age. Yet, it’s clear that their insults come from a place of mutual respect and affection.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote last year’s Sicario, packs Hell or High Water with subtle intensity. Although his script moves at a leisurely pace, the film often feels like an accident waiting to happen. It’s as if two cars are charging down the same road from opposite ends. The audience knows that the cars will inevitably crash into each other. Even if we brace ourselves, though, nothing can prepare us for the final outcome.
Sheridan’s screenplay finds the perfect match in director David Mackenzie, who’s known for crafting understated, yet powerful, movies. Unlike some other directors, Mackenzie doesn’t try to shove a distinctive filmmaking style in our faces. He doesn’t constantly tell the audience what to think either. Mackenzie simply tells a story about relatable people and lets the experience wash over us. The result is much more than a conventional heist thriller, but a gripping, atmospheric drama that keeps you invested all the way to hell and back.