About 30 minutes into Hell or High Water, an unfortunate thought occurs: It’s trying to be a Blood Simple/Fargo kind of Coen Brothers film, but it’s failing.
The slow burn tells the tale of Texas brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine’s eyebrows), ranchers who turn to bank robbery in order to pay off bank debts and provide for Toby’s estranged family. All the while, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, who is basically why we’re nearly tricked into thinking it’s the Coens) is hot on their heels with his partner Alberto (House of Cards’ Gil Birmingham). We’re told constantly that the plan is smart: Rob a specific bank’s various under-secured branches in small Texas towns and then launder the money through Native casinos located in Oklahoma. And though we can accept that this somehow makes Toby a genius, his unpredictable ex-con brother acts as wild card and begins to muck it all up as he operates outside their agreed-upon tactics. Unplanned robberies, a penchant for violence and a psychotic need to stir shit up fuel Foster’s scenes, and we constantly have this uneasy feeling he’s about to explode. He portrays this restrained lunacy to perfection. Pine, on the other hand, is flat and emotionless to the point we constantly wish Foster would just get back on-screen already.
What could have been a tense cat-and-mouse story turns sour as Bridges and Birmingham’s relationship makes for something akin to comedic relief. Uh-oh! The old-timer cowboy cop is full of racist little quips for the stoic Native cop—but they’re buddies and love each other despite all the chop-busting! This doesn’t mix entirely well with Pine and Foster’s decidedly more serious scenes, and it’s hard to invest in either duo when the brothers are complete assholes and the cops are borderline bumbling. This makes the way they finally do catch up to the brothers feel anti-climactic or like they lucked out.
The Texas backdrop, however, is gorgeous and embodies place-as-character in a way not so enjoyable since the first season of True Detective’s terrifying Louisiana backcountry. Music from Nick Cave sets a tone of constant dread and ramps up the unspoken feeling that Pine’s character never wanted to resort to robbery. This could have (and should have) been explored more deeply, which leaves us with half of a fleshed-out character, a misstep that is all the more disappointing since the entire film otherwise progresses under the assumption that banks are evil, and while they most certainly have proven they are, it seems an ultimately flimsy motivation. Too bad, because Pine’s unease might have translated into a Robin Hood-like regard for the brothers’ actions; Tanner, unfortunately, is never redeemed.
The final 15 minutes feel tacked-on in a “let’s wrap this up” fashion, and we simply can’t shake the feeling that other filmmakers have executed similar subject matter with more successful results. It’s as if director David Mackenzie (we promise you don’t know him) seems to have missed the line between homage and distorted emulation.
It isn’t that Hell of High Water is boring—more like it feels as if it couldn’t quite realize its full potential. Bridges is always worth watching, even when his lines are goofy, and Birmingham strikes a superb counterpoint to his gruff, old cowpoke demeanor (let’s get this guy more roles, huh?). Regardless, it still isn’t the Coen Brothers; rather, it’s a simple story told just well enough as to not bother anyone.
Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
With Foster, Pine, Bridges and Birmingham
DeVargas, Violet Crown