Usually seen in slick blockbuster fare, it takes a while to get used to Chris Pine as Toby Howard, a desperate Texas cowboy on a mission to save the family property following the death of his mother. The fact that Toby has opted for an unconventional approach to raising the necessary funds to save the family home from repossession puts him firmly in the sights of veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his persistently put-upon partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). With Hell of High Water, British director David MacKenzie paints a far from flattering portrait of small town America; presenting rural Texas as a desolate, desperate place that has withered away to a point where little hope remains for those who eke out an existence in the myriad communities that dot the landscape. Teaming with his unpredictable brother Tanner (Ben Foster), Toby undertakes a series of robberies to secure the cash needed to fend off the threat of repossession.
The film opens with Toby and Tanner arriving at a remote branch of the Texas Midland bank at opening time, making off with loose bills in smaller denominations to avoid dye packs and the attention of any law enforcement beyond the local police. We learn soon enough the Texas Midland is the bank that has engaged in some dodgy dealings to bring about foreclosure on the family ranch and that Toby’s motivation is two-fold; save the farm and stick it to those determined to steal the property away from him. Despite the fact that Toby has the whole operation meticulously planned, Tanner is a loose cannon (the type of character that Foster seems destined to play forever) and his impulsive self-destructive behaviour puts both men at risk as Hamilton closes in. The ease with which they are able to funnel their ill-gotten gains through casinos – exchanging the stolen cash for chips and then cashing out the chips for a fresh batch of notes or a cheque – only serves to support the arguments of those who see such establishments as inherently problematic and seemingly immune to the type of scrutiny that other industries are forced to endure. I mean, at a local level, the relationship between NSW Premier Mike Baird and Star Casino and the exemptions afforded them with regard to lock-out legislation, is a case in point, not to mention the Queensland Government’s willingness to surrender prime riverfront land for the construction of a mega-casino.
Elements of the story are derivative, such as the soon-to-be-retired Hamilton determined to make good in what will be his last ever case, but Bridges is entertaining as always even if his constant niggling at Birmingham becomes tiring after a while and not half as funny as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who also penned the superior Sicario) perhaps intended. That is not to say there aren’t some fun moments though, with a visit to the T-Bone Café particularly amusing. Likewise, there is mirth amid the mayhem when, in their attempt to rob a branch in a larger town, the boys are outgunned by the pistol-packing customers. Whilst this scene seems to be making a statement about the open carry laws that exist in Texas (and other states), it isn’t very clear what that statement is exactly. The theory is that the presence of so many weapons should make everybody feel safer, but the fact is that more people are killed or injured in this robbery than any other.
There is a distinct sense that we are expected to feel as though Toby’s actions are justified – even heroic – given his motivations, as if to say that securing a future for his ex-wife and children is reason enough to put so many other people at risk, and this is probably the film’s biggest failing. Competently made and performed, Hell or High Water is welcome relief from the surfeit of superheroes, remakes and other material devoid of any originality that constantly clogs cinema screening schedules. Yes, there is a No Country for Old Men vibe running through it, but Hell or High Water is an entertaining exploration of a world in which justice means different things to different people and where desperation often dictates the actions of those who live in it.