The story is familiar: the Howard Brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) take to robbing banks when their luck runs out, and the child support piles up. Tracking them down is an aging Texas Ranger, Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), ready to start his retirement years, and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham), who is more than ready for Hamilton to hang up his spurs.
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan give Hell or High Water a poignant touch by setting the action in West Texas; here, the west isn’t disappearing; it’s gone. Broken and ground into dust by corporations and the very banks the Howard Brothers rob.
Both in style and substance, Hell or High Water is an elegy for the west. All four of these men represent a class that was poor before the Great Recession and poorer since. An entire way of life—the small-town way of life—disappeared during those years. What resonates strongest is a simple fact: the America that few of us live in, but would love to know, will die with these small towns, never to return.
All four of the players know this, and not one of them is cut out for the 21st century. The romantic notion of going down in a blaze of glory is inexplicably tied to the relief of not having to confront the mystery of the future.
Hell or High Water confronts that notion head-on, exposing its falsity with surprising poignancy. Now streaming on Netflix.
A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 1, “Do you like American movies?“
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