Characters in Hell or High Water rob banks, but can they rob… your attention? Lee finds out.
The critical fiction, or the story that adapts a popular or somewhat conventional form in order to bring unconventional critiques to as wide a viewerbase as possible, is set with a deliberate challenge through its own nature. If a message in a widely accessible medium is to be digested and not rejected immediately, it can’t be too showy or pushy; it must be subtle, waiting, hinted at to the audience but never forced upon. Manifestos send alarm bells to even dormant thoughts; they must be teased out if they are ever to leave an impression on the hard-to-impress upon masses.
The filmmakers behind Hell or High Water knew this; why else would their slow-draw, jaded, cynical, betrayed version of rural Texas stay so quiet while all that sweet bank robbing action and pretty, pretty Chris Pine keeps happening. Sure, it pervades into the spirit of the characters, particularly Pine’s stoic Toby, but the underlying themes seldom make a reach for the spotlight, preferring to thrive in the investigative segments with Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s characters where you don’t really have to listen anyway if you don’t want to.
Lifting the anti-establishment sentimentalities of post-70s Westerns, bank robberies and all, and distilling them into a modern character unthink-piece makes for a beautiful turn here. The characters get just the right amount of dialogue, letting their actions and emotions do much of the heavy lifting. Accountability is the theme of the day, with five characters (really three, with Texas and Big Banks rounding out the cast) questioning how much is too much, how little is too little, and whether towing the line between two extremes really counts for anything. It’s sharp stuff, ambiguous in the best sense and, mercifully, doesn’t distract from the action so much that those who want just a good story can’t still enjoy themselves.
It perhaps gets a little too pointed at times, with the human representation of seedy Big Banks being a snivelling toad-man caricature still trying to nickel and dime the heroes well after their victory. It makes for a fun scene, but it spoils the even-handed view by vilifying, of all people, the fickle accountants who just take their orders as their given.
That, and its representation of women is hilariously unfair, only peppered throughout the screenplay to fuck, bitch, moan, steal or, in at least one better example, feel genuinely bad for. Sure, it’s a Western and, sure, maybe Texas really is this stereotypical; I can’t accept that. This story of brothers could at least have spared itself from a martyr’s reading of Toby, the man’s man who just can’t appease his ding dang bitch ex-wife. Yeesh.
But damn if those bank robberies aren’t great to watch, and as the action spirals further and further out of control, the tension builds to genuine levels of discomfort and dread for the characters and our connection, however tenable, to them. It’s a great watch; one of the best of the year, for sure.