Stillness can be peaceful, but it can also be menacing. Hell or High Water, a contemporary Western from Starred Up director David Mackenzie, specializes in the latter. Set in desiccated Texas towns where the hot air barely seems to move, the film centers on two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks in order to stay afloat in a moribund local economy. The film’s defining shot may be of these two standing on their foreclosed-upon family ranch, a rusty windmill in the background struggling to creak in the slowest of circles.
The movie’s atmosphere is rich, matched by performances that are laconic on the surface, thrumming with tension underneath. Foster dials back his unhinged routine to make Tanner—the loose-cannon older brother—electric in a way that doesn’t hijack the picture. Pine—lowering those bright, blue movie-star eyes as the younger Toby—reveals real tenderness beneath his Star Trek charisma. Together, they evoke the sad camaraderie of siblings who have mostly shared pain. (The script, by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan, nicely sketches their troubled family past with a few terse, brotherly conversations.)
Pine and Foster evoke the sad camaraderie of siblings who have mostly shared pain.
Then, as a bonus, the film offers Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger investigating the brothers’ crime spree. More mumble-mouthed here than he was as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, Bridges occasionally flirts with self-parody. (“They bopped you on the schnozzola, huh?” he drawls to a wounded bank manager.) But then Bridges deftly averts showmanship with unexpected neediness, often in the way he hefts about his aging frame.
Hell or High Water winds its way to an inevitable collision between Hamilton and the brothers, one that has the whiff of genre convention. And it’s capped by an odd, confrontational epilogue that feels unnecessary. The movie is better in its less purpose-driven scenes: a quiet conversation between Toby and a cash-strapped waitress; a bout of friendly jostling, in sunset silhouette, between Toby and Tanner; a hotel-room theological debate, prompted by a television evangelist, between Hamilton and his beleaguered partner (Gil Birmingham). The stillness in these scenes may not exactly be peaceful, but it’s also something other than menacing. In a landscape where the very air seems to have stalled, such instances of human connection offer a slight, vital breeze.