Set against the dry, barren wasteland of dusty Texas, two men rob a bank and drive off into the hot sun with a bag full of money. Hot on their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who’s always one step behind the two men but slowly catching up. Hell or High Water is quite simply a film that tells a simple story very well. At its heart, the film is a modern Western, a re-imagining of a cat-and-mouse, cops VS robbers flick but behind its slick surface is a deep, morally ambiguous film.
As the two robbers race past boarded up shops and abandoned houses, we’re shown a debt-stricken world where these desperate brothers, loose-cannon Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and cool-headed brother Toby (Chris Pine) are forced into a world of crime to pay back the debt on their ranch caused by a reverse mortgage. Its story is simple on the surface but under the hood of the getaway Chevrolet the brothers drive, is a deep, morally grey character-driven drama.
This intense focus on character does leave the film vulnerable to its slow pace and at times it does sometimes drop the tension it builds throughout. The story is also very straightforward with a clear path forward. There’s no twists or surprise plot revelations here and those looking for an action-soaked thriller with big gun fights and thrilling car chases will be left wanting. The building tension throughout does make for a pretty good climax which is an intense, brutal affair that makes the build worthwhile -it just takes a while to get there.
This American Western’s focus is on its characters first and foremost though and its here that the film shines. The brothers have good chemistry together and their contrasting personas work well, bouncing off with witty dialogue and some good back-and-forth exchanges. Texas Ranger Marcus, with his perfect comedic bursts and gritty, Texan drawl is the real stand out here though and his performance elevates the film above the simple premise its story has.
Overall, Hell Or High Water is a Modern Western at its heart with its focus on characters and telling a simple story well. Its also a good commentary on a debt-stricken Texas, with its sun-bleached scenes and dusty, abandoned towns that speak volumes about the mood and feel of the surrounding world these characters live in. Just like water, the film looks simple on its surface but dive a little deeper and there’s a whole lot more than meets the eye.