The Texas Dilemma is a delicious subtext lurking just beneath the surface of “Hell or High Water,” a terrific heist picture about brother-bankrobbers out to save-the-family-farm.
Everybody in this “Last Picture Show” corner of West Texas hates the banks. “Been robbin’ me for 30 years.” Until you become the robber.
“We ain’t stealin’ from you, we’re stealin’ from the bank,” falls on deaf ears.
Yeah, folks left and right have fallen victim to the “reverse mortgage” schemes of the type that conservative icons Rudy Guiliani, Fred Dalton Thompson and now Tom Selleck pitch on TV. That doesn’t mean you let robbers get away without loading up the pickups and forming a well-armed posse to hunt them down.
Old timers cling to their bolo ties and casual racism on the grounds that it’s tradition, and it’s all in good fun.
“You boys ain’t even MEXICAN!”
Most everybody in this white-but-browning enclave romanticizes the lanky, lean working class cowboy type. Until two of them rob the local bank.
And most everybody — in the diners, in the nearly empty bank branches — is packing. “Concealed carry” makes every outing that brothers Tanner and Toby Howard undertake a little too “interesting.” Fortunately, for them, the lionized “good guys with guns” can’t shoot straight.
Ben Foster is Tanner, the Comanche-revering fatalistic ex-con trying to help brother Toby (Chris Pine) save the farm from Mom’s reverse mortgage troubles. Fatalistic?
“I ain’t ever known anybody to ever get away with anything.”
Toby is the responsible one — divorced, unemployed and unemployable. If he can just save the farm… So they undertake a reasonably well-planned series of hold-ups — sadistic, trigger-happy Tanner occasionally misusing a bank employee, handsome Toby trying to get together the farm-saving cash just as sweetly as he can manage.
But we know bank robbers don’t get away these days. Not every Bug Tussle branch will have its security cameras turned off, not every one-horse/one-stoplight hamlet is going to meekly stand by and let them make off with the cash.
Jeff Bridges dials up his thickest drawl since “Wild Bill” as the about-to-retire Texas Ranger on their trail. Gil Birmingham is the half-Mexican/half-Native American partner who has to endure his instincts and hunches, and his good ol’boy racism.
British director David Mackenzie stages this as a series of biting, sometimes funny, sometimes edgy, vignettes. There’s the cute, plump waitress (Katy Mixon) whom Toby can’t quite make eye contact with, but can’t resist over-tipping. Dale Dickey (“Winter’s Bone”) is hilariously small-town and put-out as a bank teller who makes the “ain’t even MEXICANS” observation.
Every robbery is a jolt of energy and accidents/miscalculations waiting to happen. Every meal is a sashay into “Down Home” sarcasm and “local color” — that color coming from sassy non-actor waitresses and diner patrons, usually.
“Hell or High Water” is good enough to take the bad taste that summer cinema 2016 should have left in your mouth. It’s good enough that you can forget the always formidable Foster was in that early summer abortion “Warcraft,” and that Pine is wasting away in “Star Trek,” a franchise “beyond” its expiration date.
And it’s Texan enough that you understand more about the state and the American zeitgeist in this election year, a film that dares venture into places where opportunity is drifting away, demographics are shifting and the aging Waylon Jennings fans living there have become one of his songs. They’re lonesome, ornery and mean, and well-armed. And they’re reaching the point where they aren’t going to take it any more.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey, Katy Mixon
Credits: Directed by David Mackenzie, script by Taylor Sheridan. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:42