Desperation on the High Prairie in “Hell or High Water”
By Skip Sheffield
“Hell or High Water” is an old-fashioned title for an old-fashioned sort of film.
British director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Sons of Anarchy”) have cooked up a 1970s-style heist movie about two desperate characters in parched, broke West Texas. Imagine “Bonnie & Clyde” with two guys and zero romance; just nervous desperation.
Chris Pine is the most desperate character, Toby Howard. He is bummed because his wife (Dale Dickey) has divorced him, taken their two kids, and kicked Toby off his family ranch. The kicker is the ranch is $50,000 in arrears to Texas Midland Bank, which will repossess everything if Toby can’t raise $50,000 in just a week. Oh, and Toby has just discovered oil on the ranch but nobody knows.
Enter Toby’s older, wilder brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who has just been released from prison. Tanner has a simple solution: rob banks; specifically small branches of Texas Midlands. More specifically the cash taken must be in denominations no larger than $20. This way the money can’t be traced. To further bamboozle “the man,” the money will be converted to gambling chips at an Indian-owned Oklahoma casino. The chips will then be redeemed not in cash but in a cashier’s check, made out to Texas Midlands Bank. Pretty slick, huh?
As with all schemes there are complications. The biggest is Tanner’s wild streak. The men were not supposed to physically harm anyone in their scheme, but Tanner blows that intention. The second complication is wily old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who wants to make one last major bust before he retires. Along for the ride is his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom Marcus taunts with racist remarks about his Cherokee-Mexican origins.
So our sympathies are with Chris Pine’s noble character, but also with the crusty, resourceful Ranger who pursues him.
With scruffy clothes and a week’s growth of beard, handsome Chris Pine is scarcely recognizable from his clean-cut role of Capt. James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboot.
Ben Foster has specialized in loose-cannon roles, and Tanner Howard is the loosest of all. His is a character who literally does not care if he lives or dies. That is a quality that is scariest of all.
So if it’s action, suspense and plot twists you want, come to “Hell or High Water.” Just don’t expect any romance.