An ex-con older brother, a conscientious son estranged from his two boys, a dead mother and a reverse mortgage on oil land and Texas are the ingredients for this well-done neo-Western. Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) has written another tale of desperation and questionable justice set in the Southwest, “Hell or High Water.”
The movie premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and was released in the US in August.
The brains of the West Texas duo is the younger brother, Toby (Chris Pine). He’s divorced, behind on child support payments and estranged from his two sons. His brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), has already spend time in the slammer, but at first, we don’t know why. Together they rob two branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, without any deaths.
Jeff Bridges is a grizzled old sheriff, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), on the edge of retirement, cracking racist comments to his half-Native American subordinate, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), as they track two bank robbers.
Toby’s planning isn’t the problem; Tanner is. He has a reckless streak and decides to add another bank while Toby waits in a nearby diner. This almost leaves a witness, but the locals aren’t so cooperative after being left such a big tip.
After the robbery, the two head out of state. The loot is laundered at a Native American casino in Oklahoma where the two convert the money into chips, gamble and then cash out with a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank. If the two had stopped there, they would have been home free, but they don’t have enough money.
Their mother died leaving reverse mortgage of $32,000 on land that was only worth about $25,000 at the time. Toby owes about $11,000 on child support.
As the man who makes the trust explains to them, the Texas Midlands Bank “loaned the least they cold just enough to keep your mama poor” because the bankers thought they could “swipe her land” in a manner that was “so arrogant it makes my teeth hurt.” He helps them, risking more than he’s making because, “To see you boys pay them back with their own money, well, if that ain’t Texas I don’t know what is.”
The brothers themselves seem to have accepted their lot in life. Tanner protects his brother. His brother protects his sons. Their path, we learn, was set by their own father who Tanner shot and killed to stop abuse.
Director David Mackenzie doesn’t allow either brother to endear himself to the audience. Foster’s Tanner isn’t likable and perhaps doesn’t even like himself. Pine’s Toby is dark-haired and always seems a bit grim and dirty. This is love without loving ways as if this was a house cursed. Similarly, the camaraderie between the two Texas Rangers seems coldly professional. No joy is found in these desperate lives. And in the end, where is the justice on this harsh landscape?