Americans enjoy the phrase, “Runnin’ from the law.” We like our dangerous bad boys.
Many 20-something American women have exasperatedly lamented dating delinquents like the one Brad Pitt played in “Thelma & Louise”: “My coward ex is runnin’ from the law,” they say. “Coward” means there’s a baby involved. They’d take him back in a heartbeat though. It’s particularly American to romanticize this brand of dysfunction.
Movie heartthrob Chris Pine plays one such bad boy in “Hell or High Water,” a Texan slow dance of a post–Occupy movement Western.
Why’s He Runnin’?
The quintessential American Western outlaw activity is, of course, bank robbery—very Butch Cassidy and John Dillinger.
In 2016, that’s a little outdated. These days, most 99-percenters suspect the true outlaws are the banks themselves. As poignant graffiti shown in a Texas parking lot attests in the film’s opening: “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us.”
So while the robbing of banks may be very 1800s/Jesse James, robbing by banks is very 2010s/post-Occupy Wall Street. Ergo, robbing the robber banks makes for a post–Occupy worldview Western.
The In-law Outlaws
The Howard boys are odd-couple brothers: Tanner (Ben Foster) is a shot-his-daddy, went-to-jail, sociopathic drifter; Toby (Pine) is the soulful, handsome devil outlaw with a buried streak of virtue that makes this archetype irresistible to certain women.
The brothers are perpetrating basic bank stick ups 101. They’re avoiding the vaults and dye-bomb-protected big-bill packets. Instead they’re just cleaning out teller cash drawers and leaving telltale patterns and psychological insights for savvy old lawmen to follow.
Tanner provides the hair-raising, seat-of-his-pants embellishments to their bank-heist plans, but despite these bone-headed moves, the bro-team’s not dumb. Toby’s good with a bulldozer, which might account for the complete disappearance of their collection of getaway cars.
Why the Law Gets Broke
Toby’s hidden virtue is that, while his blonde, Texan ex-wife hates his heretofore deadbeat guts, and his straight-edge footballer teenage son is hostile, Toby yearns to do the right thing. He’d like to exorcise his own dad’s hand-me-down deadbeat demons, break the poverty cycle, and provide.
He’d like to keep the family’s oil-rich ranch out of Midland Bank’s foreclosure machinations. He doesn’t know how to get it done lawfully, so he intends to pay the bank back with the stolen money it stole from his family. Outlaw poetic justice.
Toby and Tanner are runnin’ from an all-ranger version of the Lone Ranger and Tonto: Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Comanche-Mexican deputy/side-kick Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). These two make up the film’s second odd couple.
Bridge’s Marcus is a homespun-but-acerbic, widower sheriff with a dreaded porch-and-rocking-chair retirement looming.
Alberto’s an overly earnest, kindly man—and an irresistibly easy target. Marcus. just. can’t. help himself, and he must constantly and ruthlessly let the stuffing out of the long-suffering Alberto with nonstop, Tommy Lee Jones-style deadpan (and completely un-P.C.) racial ribbing.
It’s a running gag; at first wince-worthy, it picks up hilarity as the movie shuffles along at Texas-speed, and it dawns on us that these two are really an old married couple, with great, unspoken, manly man affection for each other.
Speaking of which, the Howard boys also have a powerful brotherly love. With bickering. Call “High Water” a rambling, muted, Texan hetero man-love movie.
Kicks Into High Gear
Since the film moves at the aforementioned Texan pace, the first third is slow. It was during the gas station scene (going into the second third), when smack-talking Tanner provokes the pistol-waving driver of a muscled-up lime-green Dodge Challenger, when I started feeling, “Okay, it’s got me now.” Mr. Pistol suddenly realizes that by trying to bully the normally taciturn Toby, he just stepped into the strike-zone of a human rattlesnake.
Bridges does an “it’s-a-quality-film-so-now-I’m-motivated” version of the over-the-top, Western-twang schtick he’s been adopting for a string of films now (the worst of it pervading “R.I.P.D.” and “Seventh Son,” and the best reserved for “True Grit” and “Crazy Heart”). His portrayal of Marcus is lots of fun.
Foster is a character actor’s character actor. To have witnessed his acting arc from the artsy, schlemiel boyfriend on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” to the tough Navy SEAL of “Lone Survivor” is to understand camera acting shape-shifting.
Pine’s the rare kind of handsome that can wear the moustache well—just the ‘stache. Not easy to pull off. Who are our great moustache-wearers? Tom Selleck, of course, and Sam Elliot—but most of all, Robert Redford.
Pine nails the outlaw cowboy look: longish, swept back hair and sideburns—and the ‘stache. All that plus Paul Newman’s vivid blue eyes (and acting chops), and you’ve got the classic American western outlaw. Women love this archetype so much, somebody wrote a doo-wop song about it: “My baby loves the Western movies.”
Keep an eye out for character actress Dale Dickey’s hilarious, tough-as-rawhide diner waitress, intimidating the tough lawmen.
State of the Nation
So are the banks really the outlaws? Certainly the tellers and branch managers in Midland, Texas, are not. They’re just small-fry folks trying to eke out a living like anybody else. The 1-percenter upper management types, as depicted here, are a different story, though.
Like that parking lot graffiti forewarned, probably when our returning combat-vet Marines look at the living options the banks offer (like homelessness), when they now say, “Oo-rah! Git some,” they may be considering robbing the robber banks.
“Hell Or Highwater” has a lot of gritty, low-rent, beat-down, small-town Americana; lots of cowboy-hatted, conceal-and-carry citizen-arrest zeal; great performances; a killer soundtrack; and a very post-Occupy coda, wherein men speak of peace and redemption.
‘Hell or High Water’
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey,
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Release Date: August 12
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5