There's a moment early on in "Hell or High Water" in which two Texas Rangers are driving through the West Texas countryside headed to a crime scene. A large brushfire has taken control in the fields and a group of middle-aged cowboys are herding some cows across the road, away from the burning plains. When one of the Rangers asks if they need help, the cowboy smiles and says something like "This is the 21st century and we're herding cattle away from a fire towards a river. No wonder my kids don't want to do this for a living."
That casual statement permeates every single moment of "Hell or High Water," a modern American western that deals with poverty, violence and American expectations better than any movie of the last decade. It's a philosophy that shapes every choice of the four main characters and shades the West Texas scenery with a sense of Sisyphean pointlessness and moral ambivalence.
The film follows two sets of partners: Toby Howard (Chris Pine going for broke) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster, once again proving he's the finest character-actor of his generation), who are on a bank robbing spree. They have to make around $40,000 by the end of the week or the bank will foreclose on their family ranch. Tanner couldn't really care less, but Toby wants to have something to leave his children, something tangible so they don't have to grow up with nothing like he did.
Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are tasked with finding the men. Hamilton is three weeks from retirement and driving Parker up the wall with his mildly racist jabs at Parker's mixed Native American/Mexican heritage. Hamilton looks at the hunt-and-capture of the bank robbers as his last hurrah before moving on to full-time alcoholism.
"Hell or High Water" can play as a simple and straightforward modern western crime thriller, but it works even better when viewed as a bottle of beer poured on the grave of the American dream. The film's thesis is straightforward: The Wild West is dead in 2016 and the cowboys who expect any different head to their graves with nothing except for an antiquated view on what freedom really means anymore. The wide-open spaces have fences around them now and we are most definitely not invited in.
Tanner spent a decade in prison for shooting his abusive father, so he views his freedom as something he can barely abide by as he violently lashes out at anyone who gets too close. Toby cares about his legacy while not necessarily caring about himself. Hamilton wants one more chance to be a real-live Texas Lawman before taking the gold watch and shuffling off to slowly die on his porch. Parker upholds the law while knowing that the banks and the white men behind them decide how to profit from those laws.
"Hell or High Water" is the best film of its kind since "No Country For Old Men," and the best film of the year so far. In a summer when most of the huge blockbusters were even bigger disappointments, this film (along with other notables like "Green Room," "The Lobster" and "Swiss Army Man") has made 2016 an indelible year in film.
"Hell or High Water"
Dir. David Mackenzie
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX