Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay for Hell or High Water follows much the same formula as his script for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. It begins steeped in clichés of its mid-Texas setting. Oil rigs dot flat landscapes, their butter-churn-like grind the only consistent movement in the static, hot air. Everyone is conservative, rough-edged, and simple, from the background figures to the main characters, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Down on their luck, the two rob banks, and from the start one can see how their ignorance interferes with their plans: They arrive at one bank so early that the manager with the keys isn’t even there yet, and they constantly squabble over Toby’s meek carefulness and Tanner’s fidgety trigger finger.
As with Sicario, the broad strokes of the film’s Southwestern stereotypes gradually sharpen into focus as the story pivots to a look at the systemic forces that shape the characters. Far from simply looking for a quick payday, Toby and Tanner target branches of the bank that foreclosed on their late mother’s ranch. Once the reason for the bank’s aggressive attempt to take over the plot of land is revealed, the film becomes a neo-western, with the brothers as the logical descendants of noble outlaws fighting against the corrupting influence of “civilization” in all its oppressive forms. This change in perspective accompanies a shift in the way that the brothers’ robberies are portrayed, less bumbling amateur affairs than shrewdly devised smash-and-grab jobs where Toby and Tanner only take loose bills in the banks’ registers instead of risking dye packs and traceable serial numbers by raiding vaults. Toby even has a flawless money-laundering plan, exploiting the lack of oversight on casinos to mask their takes as winnings.
The stark atmosphere and the intimate focus on character drama keeps the action on a muted emotional keel.
As the film’s politics take shape, so do its characters. Pine is best known for sardonic variations on the somber, reflective hero, but here he gets the chance to play this familiar type straight, and the actor brings a weariness to Toby that he’s never exhibited before. Divorced, prospectless, and soon to be homeless, Toby has every reason to panic, but his surprisingly well-planned heists speak to his ability to maintain a semblance of self-control in the face of desperation. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tanner, who’s so unpredictable in his rage that you’d be forgiven for thinking that he were the one personally wronged by the banks. Foster has been playing irascible brutes for nearly his entire career, but he’s only just aged into the character type. Redolent of the actor’s recent stage performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Tanner is terrifying in his uncontrollable vitriol, which is only made more unsettling by his occasional flashes of corroded innocence. His caustic sense of humor, short fuse, and intensely emotional displays of frustration and love toward his brother suggest a child who was once lovable, but who grew to become warped and stunted.
The social anger at the heart of the narrative is grounded in the interactions between the brothers, as well as in the glimpses of complexity in other characters. U.S. Marshall Marcus (Jeff Bridges) speaks to his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), almost exclusively in casually racist jokes about his heritage, but the gregariousness in Marcus’s voice reveals these jabs as his clumsy attempt to show genuine affection, and Alberto’s stone-faced, mildly sardonic responses tacitly accept this strange, obsolete demonstration of camaraderie. Both men have a grudging respect for Toby and Tanner, admiring their principled, low-yield approach for its risk-reduction. The thieves also find loose support in many locals, like a waitress (Katy Mixon) who receives a large, guilt-ridden tip from Toby and refuses to surrender it to the authorities as evidence, noting that she, too, is struggling to get by thanks to her usurious mortgage. The venom in her voice when Marcus demands her tip reveals the simmering tensions that inevitably produce people like Toby and Tanner.
But for every cash-strapped citizen who sees the robbers as folk heroes, there are plenty more fully armed Texans chomping at the bit to be the heroes of their own life stories by opening fire on the thieves whenever possible. The heat-packing status of every townie is first a topic of broad comedy, then pitch-black, mirthless humor as one heist goes horribly wrong and Toby and Tanner’s ramshackle professionalism collapses. The stark atmosphere of the arid setting and the intimate focus on character drama keeps most of Hell or High Water’s action scenes on a muted emotional keel, but the messy, bloody conclusion represents a rupture, not only of the brothers’ carefully laid plans, but of a delicate social ecosystem, one whose inherent rage and pressure has no clear outlet and is thus misdirected to chaotic results.