“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”
Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, a divorced father of two from West Texas. After his mother’s recent passing, Texas Midlands Bank has informed him that unless he can find $43,000 by the end of the week to pay off the mortgage and back-taxes, they will foreclose on her property, which was left in her will to his children. It is not just nostalgia tying him to this land– enough oil has been discovered to secure his children’s future. If he can only get the money.
The opening scene is extraordinary in painting a picture of the entire film to come. As an ominous violin plays, a worn car travels through a rundown town before pulling in behind a building, just in front of the camera. We track left to show a women lighting a cigarette, then get out of her similarly worn car and start walking. The camera continues tracking to follow her, revealing graffiti on the wall bearing the words ‘3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us’. As the woman crosses the road, the camera rotates 180 degrees to match and the car reappears, showing two men inside heading in the same direction. The music swells as the final destination is revealed, Texas Midlands Bank.
Once again the car disappears, this time behind the bank as the women finishes her cigarette. A piano plays deep, piercing notes as she throws the butt on the ground and walks towards the entrance. She rummages in her handbag for the keys before preparing to unlock the door. Suddenly two men wearing ski masks pounce, armed with guns they demand her to give them the money in the registers.
Over the course of one 80 second take, we learn about the financial standing of the two robbers, with their battered car, and the wider community as a whole, with its deteriorating buildings and poorly maintained infrastructure. The graffiti on the wall also informs us of the societal views towards the banks and corporation in general, the first in a long list of anti-capitalist statements this film has to make.
Beyond the narrative this scene builds up a tension that never dwindles throughout, keeping the viewer on edge before being finally released in the last scene, another long take showing a car drive into the distance. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens stamps his name onto this film fiercely. Every frame is perfectly lit, each character is perfectly positioned, it is a masterclass in filmmaking.
As a result of Nuttgen’s work and in addition to the fantastic script by Taylor Sheridan, every scene is memorable and every character feels equally important, regardless of the role they play, from a rattlesnake of a hostess in a deserted town’s steakhouse to a waitress who refuses to surrender the $200 tip Howard gave her to the Rangers without a warrant because she’ll be using it to pay half her mortgage.
All four major characters are perfectly cast in their roles and perform superbly, Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges as the cops, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the robbers. Foster yet again proved himself to be one of the best character actors working today as Pine’s ex-convict brother prepared to go to dangerous lengths for the sake of family. Bridges similarly deserves all the acclaim he has received in his role as a Ranger days away from retirement, wanting to go out in a blaze of glory.
Hell or High Water is comprehensive in its magnificence. A modern day outlaws and lawmen movie in which neither is the true villain. Director David Mackenzie has created something that is adamantly reflective of its time.