Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) update the western for the modern age, while tweaking and twisting it into this crime drama.
Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) are brothers. Tanner is a career criminal, and Toby, like those in his family before him, is dirt poor.
Like so many places in America, in this case, west Texas, small towns are disappearing, businesses are closing down, folks are in debt, and the bank is the only one making any money – something that is noticed in the production design of the film, the only places that look new and clean are the banks, everything else is worn, closed down, cracked with age, dirty, or forsaken.
Toby is trying to hold onto the family ranch, days before the bank is about to foreclose, having kept his now dead mother as poor as possible, and on the hook for a mortgage and back taxes.
Toby is determined to break the cycle, and make sure his children and his ex-wife are taken care of and can have a better life. Even if it doesn’t include him.
He and his brother plan a series of bank robberies, against the very institution that will be claiming the ranch, to get enough money to buy back the ranch, pay off the mortgage and everything owning on it.
Tanner is violent and impulsive, while Toby is doing this because he sees no other way, He wants to look after his family, but those in power aren’t making it easy.
They are pursued by the very model of the institution, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), white, ageing, racist, and good at his job. His partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) holds out against the racist remarks thrown his way, because Hamilton’s retirement is imminent.
The two pairs dance around each other, as Toby and Tanner try to stay one step ahead of the law as they launder their stolen money, and arrange to pay the bank back.
POS cars take the place of horses, and ski masks replace kerchiefs, but all the marks of the classic western, including gorgeous cinematography of sweeping landscapes, are there; the ageing lawman, the chase, the shootouts, the bank robbers.
But the creative team plays with these tropes, tweaking them for the modern age, and playing with them, from making a statement on the gun ‘situation’ of the States, and its cowboy culture, to themes of justice being different than the law, the film is the western for the 21st century.
The three leads, Bridges, Pine and Foster all turn in strong performances, though I will say Foster doesn’t seem to be getting as much work as he should, I think he’s a great actor, why isn’t he working more?
Pine and Bridges are nicely matched against one another, young, old, thief, ranger, father, childless, they seem to be direct opposites, and if Bridges’ Hamilton is the last of the old guard of the old American Dream, then Toby is leading the way in Texas, showing that justice isn’t always legal, and that the powerful can be bested; sacrifices need to be made, but you can make a better life for those who come after you.
A solid crime drama (not really my genre) that is well-written, acted, and shot.
Hell or High Water is playing now.