Sometimes, a movie’s title is so perfect that I don’t need to think of a title when I write about it. 2016’s Hell or High Water is such a film. I’m going to get real with you guys here. We’re going to get into some intense emotional stuff, and I’ll be quoting a lot of the film’s brilliant dialogue, which will include uncensored f-words. Also, there will be a lot of spoilers. Here we go.
Hell or High Water is the story of four men. Two are brothers by blood, two are brothers by friendship. The blood brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Tanner, the older brother, was recently released from prison after ten years for killing the brothers’ abusive father in a hunting accident that may not have been so accidental. While his older brother was incarcerated, Toby cared for their terminally ill mother. Toby is estranged from his wife and two sons, and the recent death of their mother has left Toby deep in debt, unable to pay child support to his wife, and the bank is about to foreclose on the family ranch, on which oil has recently been discovered. Desperate for money, Toby enlists his brother’s help to rob a series of banks.
Toby is the brains of the operation, and the robberies are well-planned. They hit the banks early in the morning when there are less people there, and they take lower denominations of bills. They then launder the money at a casino, where they convert the stolen cash into poker chips, and then after a bit of drinking and gambling, they have the casino convert their “winnings” into a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank they’ve been robbing. Toby’s clever plan pays the bank back with their own money, and the bank has no way of tracing it.
Despite Toby’s well-crafted scheme, his big brother Tanner is unpredictable. He is aggressive and takes unnecessary risks, which frustrates Toby. But Toby also has a conscience, and despite being the brains of the operation, he would be a terrible criminal without his brother’s help. Toby needs Tanner, and they both know it.
There’s a lot of pent-up resentment between the brothers, exemplified when Toby tells Tanner that “while you were in prison, I was taking care of Mom, so you can go fuck yourself.” Toby resents Tanner’s wildness, while Tanner feels he’s doing Toby a favor, and since they both know Toby would suck as a criminal without Tanner’s help, Toby should just shut up and let him help. “How the fuck have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his brother at one point. “It’s been difficult,” Tanner admits.
The relationship between these two characters is utterly fascinating, and all of it feels completely real. Pine and Foster have a relaxed, easy chemistry, and are completely believable as brothers. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who also wrote the bleak thriller Sicario in 2015, which is an incredibly good movie. Hell or High Water demonstrates many of Sheridan’s strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue, believable characters, and murky morality. The viewer of Hell or High Water is never sure who to root for, and the film wisely withholds judgment on its characters, leaving the viewers to form their own decisions.
But Toby and Tanner are only half of the equation. The brothers by friendship are Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Hamilton and Parker are the two Texas Rangers investigating the brothers’ bank robberies. Marcus is nearing mandatory retirement, and figures this bank-robber caper will be his last hurrah. Alberto is half-Native American, half-Mexican, and endures constant jabs from Marcus about his heritage. After one of many insults, Alberto sighs and says, “You know I’m part Mexican, too.” Marcus’ response: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”
It may not seem like these men are brothers, but they are. In the special features on the film’s Blu-ray, Sheridan talks about how Marcus insults Alberto because he doesn’t know how to express how much Alberto means to him. It’s a toxic way of expressing love and friendship, Sheridan says, but it’s the only way Marcus knows. Sheridan’s writing is so good at capturing characters that feel like real people. He is also good at suggesting backstory without overly explaining everything. Much of the backstory I talked about between Toby and Tanner earlier isn’t spelled out or shown directly, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so good that it doesn’t have to be. Sheridan respects the viewers to be able to put the pieces together for themselves.
And there are many moments that are quietly heartbreaking. When Alberto suggests to Marcus that he needs a hobby, maybe horseback riding, Marcus rejects the idea. “Marybeth was the horse rider,” he says. “It would just remind me of her.” The knowledge that Marcus lost his wife makes the viewer reconsider Marcus’ actions. Without his wife, Marcus’ work and his friendship with Alberto mean that much more. There’s never any mention of Marcus’ wife aside from this one line, but it speaks volumes about his character.
The movie was directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish filmmaker who does a brilliant job capturing the feel of rural, small-town America. The movie mostly takes place in west Texas, although it was filmed in New Mexico. The environment is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As Toby and Tanner drive to and from their various bank heists, they constantly pass signs and billboards reading “FOR SALE” and “FAST CASH” and “DEBT RELIEF”, making the reality of Toby’s financial woes all the more real.
Toby is a good man whose life is falling apart, and he’s been forced to take extreme actions to help his family. I’m not trying to say robbing banks is a good idea, but Toby is a deeply sympathetic character. You could even argue that his motives are altruistic, since the money from the robberies goes towards paying off the bank and setting up a trust in his family’s name, so that they will be able to keep the ranch in the future, and live off the money the oil-drilling will provide for them. “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation,” Toby tells Marcus near the end of the film. “But not my boys, not anymore.”
Even the volatile Tanner is a complex character. While many of his actions are horrendous (he kills a bank security guard, a civilian, and a cop without a hint of remorse) and his behavior is sometimes despicable (he scares off a woman putting the moves on Toby at a bar, only to seduce a hotel receptionist mere minutes later), you could still make the argument that he does what he does in order to help his brother and his family. Conversely, you could argue that he’s a cold-blooded killer who only does it for the thrill. The fact that you could make a convincing argument either way is another testament to the strength of Taylor Sheridan’s writing.
It should go without saying that things eventually go wrong for the bandit brothers. They eventually bite off more than they can chew when they try to rob a larger branch of the bank when there are a lot of people there. They soon learn the perils of bank-robbing in Texas, and are pursued by a heavily-armed posse when their attempted robbery devolves into a shootout. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, but it’s also wryly funny. “Those concealed-carry permits sure complicate bank robberies,” Tanner says as they drive away in a hail of bullets.
After Tanner scares the posse away by unloading three clips from an assault rifle at them, the brothers go their separate ways in what is my favorite scene in the film. Toby, taking the money and limping from a bullet wound in his side, staggers over to his car. As he opens the door and gets in, Tanner leans out from the driver’s side of his bullet-riddled pickup truck. “Hey, Toby,” he says.
Toby looks up.
“You know I love you, don’t you?” Tanner says.
Toby smiles faintly. “I love you, too,” he says, and shuts the car door.
“Hey, Toby,” Tanner says again.
Toby looks up again.
“Go fuck yourself,” Tanner says with a grin.
Toby grins back. “Go fuck yourself,” he replies.
They both laugh and drive in different directions, never to see each other again.
That short scene is, to me, the definition of brotherly love. These two men don’t always see eye-to-eye, they frequently don’t even like each other. But they love each other just the same. It’s not a long, drawn-out goodbye, because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s deeply moving just the same. Tanner leads the cops away, singing merrily to himself as they chase after him. He leads them to a mountain ridge, where he takes shots at them with a rifle.
Marcus and Alberto are among the pursuers, and as they take cover behind a police car, a shot rings out and hits Alberto in the head, killing him instantly. It takes Marcus a few seconds to realize what has happened, and once he does, his strangled gasp is heartbreaking. But Tanner has the high ground, and the cops can’t get to him. Marcus finds a local resident who knows the area, and manages to get behind Tanner. Tanner, unaware of this, continues firing at the lawmen. “Lord of the plains,” he grins to himself. “That’s me.” The view changes to Marcus aiming down the scope of a rifle, right at Tanner’s head. He fires, hitting Tanner square in the head, and it’s over. Tanner slumps lifelessly forward, blood pooling in the ground at his feet. There’s no drawn-out, blaze-of-glory death sequence. Just BANG, and he’s gone. Marcus leans against a rock and half-laughs, half-cries.
Meanwhile, Toby is able to pass a police checkpoint without incident, and heads to the casino to launder the money. He is sitting at the bar having a drink when he hears about Tanner’s death on the news on a TV behind him. He doesn’t even turn around to look at the TV, just raises his glass and silently takes a drink. Then he visits the bank, pays off his debts, and sets up a trust fund in his family’s name.
Some time later, Marcus visits his old office to talk with his replacement and get some closure on the Howards. He learns that the Texas Rangers have cleared Toby as a suspect, since his record is clean and he has no motive because the oil wells on his family’s property make more money in a month than what was stolen in all the bank robberies combined. The bank is also not cooperating with the investigation, since they don’t want to lose management of the family’s trust fund. The Rangers never got descriptions of the bank robbers, since the brothers wore hoods and masks to all their robberies, so Toby and his family are in the clear.
Although he has no proof and no authority, Marcus knows Toby was the brains of the operation. He visits Toby at the now-lucrative family ranch, and their conversation is fascinating. These two men have every reason to hate each other, but there’s no real sense of enmity between them. Just a grudging sort of respect. Marcus tells Toby that he knows Toby was the mastermind, and wants to know why. Toby is evasive, and this is when he says the line to Marcus that I quoted earlier, about how his family’s poverty won’t be passed down to his sons.
As Marcus gets up to leave and heads back to his car, Toby stops him.
“Hey,” he says.
Marcus turns around.
“I rent a little house in town,” Toby says. “If you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime.”
“Oh, I’d like that,” Marcus replies. “Be seeing you.”
“Yeah,” Toby says. “Soon, I hope. I’m ready to be done with this.”
“You’ll never be done with it no matter what,” Marcus says. “It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days. But you won’t be alone. It’s gonna haunt me too.”
“If you stop by,” Toby says, “Maybe I’ll give you peace.”
“Maybe,” Marcus agrees, nodding, then says “Maybe I’ll give it to you.” He turns away, gets in his car, and drives off. And that’s the end of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if that peace will come from a shared six-pack or the barrel of a shotgun.
Who wins? Toby provides for his family, but at the cost of several deaths, including that of his own brother. As Marcus says, he’s just going to have to live with that for the rest of his life. Marcus kills one of the robbers, but he’ll never be able to nab the man he knows is the second one, and his best friend was killed before Marcus was able to tell him how much he valued him. And while Tanner’s motives are questionable and his behavior is frequently deplorable, in the end he gives his life for his brother, and there is no greater sacrifice.
With most movies I see, there are pros and cons. But while the pros of Hell or High Water could fill a book, when I think about cons, I can’t come up with a single one. It’s damn near perfect. It’s tense, relatable, wryly funny, deeply moving, and the writing, acting, and directing are superb. It’s an achingly human story and its characters and their relationships are profoundly real. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture, and while it didn’t win any of them I’m glad it was recognized. Chris Pine has never been better, nobody plays a crusty Texas Ranger better than Jeff Bridges (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the supporting work from Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham is commendable, as is the rest of the supporting cast.
It’s a tremendous movie. Oddly, the back of the film’s Blu-ray package lists the film’s running time as 122 minutes, when it’s actually 102 minutes. The fact that the movie does what it does in such a relatively brief amount of time is extraordinary. There are plenty of big blockbusters with ten or even twenty times the budget that are 45 minutes longer, and don’t have nearly as much pathos as this film does.
See it. It’s unforgettable.
Also unforgettable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is the movie I’ll be talking about next week. It’s the weirdest movie of 2017 and one of the weirdest movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It’s a twisted tale full of slithering eels and dark secrets. It’s Gore Verbinski’s bizarro fright flick A Cure For Wellness. See you next week!