Fittingly, I watched an episode of Columbo recently wherein William Shatner plays a TV detective who murders his producer, a woman who was also blackmailing him. He reflects upon his crime, and also upon an episode of his show that was seemingly in part an inspiration for his crime. Shatner’s character talks about how he felt the killer was sympathetic in the way things unfolded. The reason I take this aside before discussing the movie Hell or High Water is because that idea certainly feels thematically relevant.
Hell or High Water is both a western and a heist movie, although perhaps calling it a heist movie is inapt. When you think of a “heist movie,” you probably think of something like the Ocean’s series of movies. This film is not that. It’s smaller and grimier. It’s about desperate men making desperate decisions in the vast expanses of the American southwest, primarily Texas.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard. Their mother just died, and now they need money to pay off the reverse mortgage and other predatory loans that a local Texas bank foisted upon their mother, so that the family farm can be saved. Tanner is an ex-con, and so the brothers make the decision to rob banks, specifically the banking company who are threatening to foreclose on their home. They take small amounts of money, and they only take money from the bank, and they are only doing it to pay the bills. Nevertheless, it brings the attention of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Would you believe that Bridges plays a crotchety old Texas Ranger who is close to retiring?
Sure, eventually things turn pear shaped and get violent, but mostly it’s a quiet, contemplative movie about robbing banks. However, perhaps it’s too quiet, in a way. Hell or High Water got a ton of critical laudations, and I am not going entirely against that. It’s just that I don’t find this movie to be revelatory, or even great. It’s a good movie. Bridges and Foster are naturals in a movie about Texan shitkickers, and it’s fun to see Pine doing something other than starring in a blockbuster or in a franchise. Do we really know much about Pine as an actor? Or do we just know that he’s pretty good as Captain Kirk? He’s good as the smarter, calmer brother. The movie looks nice, and I wasn’t expecting, say, Heat, although I’m not a big fan of Heat either to be fair. It’s a film that dedicates a lot of time to the vast vistas of that region of the country, and that’s fine, but it may be a bit overindulgent at times. The movie has something to say about the recession and banks and the seemingly cyclical nature of poverty. It’s not just about guys taking money and cops and robbers shooting guns at each other. That’s interesting, and that’s substantive, but that doesn’t equal greatness.
I will say, the credit of the Blu-ray/DVD combo, there are quite a few special features. There are features about the characters, the actors, shooting the landscape, and also a Q&A with the filmmaker.
Hell or High Water is a fine western, and a fine crime film, but it doesn’t really ascend to the level of wondrous drama.