Hell or High Water

And Justice for Some

Classic Westerns have a look about them: beaten landscapes, dusty shirts, and a hardness in peoples’ eyes that says they’ve seen the worst and don’t expect anything to get better. Hell or High Water doesn’t have to work too hard to apply those hallmarks to its modern-day setting. In fact, the New West looks worse than the old one, a place where hope grew despite itself before succumbing to the relentless pressures of oxidation and a downturned economy. Still, hard times makes good fodder for storytelling, and this tale is a whopper.

Where does the line between doing the right thing and real wrongdoing lie? Are citizens who are just as ready to grab their gun as a lawman in the right?

Two brothers, both alike in poverty (to borrow phrasing from the Bard), take to the road as bank robbers, targeting the West Texas bank that swindled their sick mother into a reverse mortgage. What first seems like a desperate revenge scenario in the post-recession era turns out to be a methodic, oddly practical plan for the future. But while Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movies) and Ben Foster make a sympathetic case for crime, the law is the law. Retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is dreading being put out to pasture, so when news of a string of bank robberies crosses his desk, he’s delighted to hit the road and match wits with worthy opponents one last time.

Both sides reveal their own goals and motivations a careful layer at a time, playing with the notion of justified crime. Where does the line between doing the right thing and real wrongdoing lie? Are citizens who are just as ready to grab their gun as a lawman in the right?

Rife with head-on collisions between the old West and the new, Hell or High Water is a rare entry in a genre that is just as rusty and beaten down as so much of rural America. Any Western that isn’t a remake or a kitsch-fest is newsworthy. One that succeeds in breaking new ground deserves to be seen. Here, all the worn tropes get a fresh coat of paint, from the hard-bitten wife right down to the posse of townspeople, which has been reimagined as a fleet of SUVs rolling down the highway.

This is a film that isn’t afraid to make you laugh one moment and confront deep injustice the next. Marcus’s Texas Ranger partner Alberto delivers an arresting monologue on how this land belonged to his Comanche ancestors for centuries. Then the white man came and took it away. Now, he says, the land the white people’s ancestors stole is being taken away from them. Put in that modern perspective, stories of Indian raiding parties—used so often in old Western films—take on more sympathetic depths.

Action directors these days don’t seem to think they can raise pulses without a heaping mix of explosions, staccato cuts, spraying bullets, and heaps of dead bodies. Perversely, those elements tend to have a numbing effect. Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan deliver a different recipe: a well-told story, gut-punching cinematography, and a sparing, effective use of violence are the ticket to leave bitten nails and provoking thoughts that linger long after the theater lights go up.

Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout, and brief sexuality.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.