Hell or High Water is a classic film about down-on-their-luck bank robbers and the gruff-but-tenderhearted sheriff who doggedly chases them. The bank robbers are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con recently released from prison, and Toby (Chris Pine), a rancher trying to save the family home from foreclosure because the recently deceased mother had tied it up with a reverse mortgage. Come “hell or high water,” they are determined to pay off the debt before the bank gets the ranch.
There isn’t a bad guy in this film. The robbers are bumbling and likeable, with a noble if misguided motive. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” Tanner tells one bank manager as he points a gun at him. They’re smart enough to garner our admiration for their home-saving plan, dumb enough to make us laugh, and kind enough to tellers and waitresses to engage our sympathy. The bank managers and tellers are also just ordinary folks doing their jobs, and a little bit dumb as well. Their video cameras aren’t working, and they seem to have no security plan in place. If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages as the financial saviors of old age — but they don’t actually appear in the movie.
It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.
As inept as they seem, Toby and Tanner leave no clues behind — largely because the bankers are so inept themselves. Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is determined to catch these thieves through cunning instead of force. He would rather figure out their next move and wait for them at the next bank than chase them down with forensics and SWAT teams. He’s an old codger of the proverbial “dying breed,” and the true thief in this film — Jeff Bridges steals the show. Bridges has long been one of my favorite actors, as skilled as Tom Hanks but without the pizazz and notoriety. He just gets the job done, quietly and without fanfare, much as his character, Marcus Hamilton, does in the script.
Underlying the bank heists and chase scenes and good-ol’-boy ribbing is a poignant story about how difficult it can be for men to express deep affection for one another. Tanner and Toby clearly love each other, yet they can’t put that love into words. Instead, they undertake a risky scheme to demonstrate their loyalty to each other. Similarly, Toby is estranged from his sons, who want nothing to do with him, yet he is willing to risk death or prison in order to give them a better life.
If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages.
The relationship between the sheriff and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is even more striking. Marcus is an old-fashioned “man’s man” who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.
Hell or High Water is a character-driven film with an engaging story and topnotch acting. I’ve come to expect the best from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, who tend to abandon themselves in their acting and let the character take over with gestures and expressions that are simply and unexpectedly perfect. But Chris Pine, who is known mostly as an action figure with a pretty face (Star Trek, Jack Ryan), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as well. Come hell or high water, you should see this film while it’s in theaters this month.