Stories of the Wild Wild West fill America’s literary canon. These stories tend to embrace a particular view of life, and depending on the setting, also promote the idea of white men pushing natives off of their land in the name of “progress.” So what happens when, several generations later, the descendants of these white men find their own lot in life threatened?
That’s the larger, more subtle question hanging over Hell or High Water, a surprisingly modern take on what’s essentially a Western. A pair of bank robbers are hitting a string of banks in Texas, and it’s up to a pair of Texas Rangers to put a stop to their crimes. But there’s more to the film than that sentence suggests. The bank robbers are brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), and as Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) notes when he arrives to the scene of the first crime, these two are more methodical than your average bank robber. The Howard brothers, though, haven’t taken into account having someone like Hamilton, who’s on the verge of retirement, chasing after them.
The reason for being methodical is that there’s a larger plan at play. While Tanner is an ex-con, Toby’s a typically law-abiding citizen. It’s Toby’s plan, though, and there’s a reason they’re hitting the specific banks they rob. The responses to their crimes from various citizens further show the particular environment where this all takes place: areas where progress has bypassed them economically, where many struggle day to day. Without condoning their actions, the film shows how much blame the system bears for creating this environment, and this sense of desperation from Toby in particular.
Hell or High Water is an unusual but potent mix of a modern crime drama and a Western, and with a slew of strong performances, stunning work from director David Mackenzie and an impeccable script by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, it’s one of the best films of 2016.