The recession has hit and the financial crisis has taken its toll on Texas and Texan families, namely Toby (a more solemn and melancholy Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, with the dial turned up a bit more than those around him). The crisis and the banks first taking their ailing mother and the family ranch next in their sights. To save the farm, the brothers begin to rob banks for drawer money to the tune of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ beautiful, sorrowful strings. On their tail is a determined, retiring Texas Ranger named Marcus (Jeff Bridges in Rooster Cogburn sans alcohol mode).
Writer Taylor Sheridan hangs his screenplay on a million genre tropes but never seems to fall on any one too heavily, filling in pasts and context through some thoroughly Texan dialogue between the two brothers. And the past looms large in Hell or High Water, both in the text of the script and the way in which director David Mackenzie’s slow moving, languid camera always manages to pass over rusted used cars or slow-rotting shop signs or simply settle on the vast desert landscape that carries with it the weight of the past and a still lifelessness. It’s a pretty heavy metaphor for the economic climate, but it’s proof that genre thriller as tightly wound as High Water can be poignant. Marcus’ deputy, a half Mexican half Indian, notes the absurdity in this affinity for the past – people have always been taking and stealing and destroying land, it’s just harder to understand now. “How do people make a living in this town?” Alberto (Gil Birmingham, who matches Bridges’ wit) asks, looking around at the deadness. We’re left wondering the same.
And that’s where Mackenzie balances the tone and atmosphere. He favors long, slow takes that capture the air barely moving, and just when the clouds are hanging about twenty feet off the ground and the atmosphere is heavy and bleak there’s a burst of hilarious dialogue or physical comedy from Bridges or Foster. Marcus’ lovingly racist jabs at Alberto have us questioning our laughter right after it escapes the same way we question the Howards’ dilemma. They’re no less criminal than the greedy, nasty banks, right? But the bank is a brick building, and Mackenzie (with Sheridan’s script and great performances all around) gives us deeply human characters at the center of his dead and lifeless landscape, allowing him to wring pure tension out of situations in which we’re not sure if our alliances lie with the brothers, the cops, both, or with no one.