Hell or High Water sees a Scottish director making a down-home movie about cars, guns, brothers, banks and twist-off beers. As he has in previous films, David Mackenzie applies his serene outsider's perspective to new territory, namely the open ranges, empty streets and deserted diners of small-town Texas. The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), examines two sets of determined men: Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), dirt-poor brothers driven to a desperate spree of bank robberies by the impending threat of foreclosure, and Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), the veteran law enforcers assigned to the case.
But Mackenzie and Sheridan (who grew up in West Texas and has an ex–U.S. marshal for an uncle) are far more interested in exploring the men’s off-the-clock behavior, suffusing the plight of both pairs with a faded melancholy. Hell or High Water’s deliberate pacing gives it the feel of a heist story with its feet stuck in mud — and that’s a good thing. When the movie just sits with the characters on front porches or in backyards, Mackenzie’s generous, hands-off approach with his actors — most of the conversation scenes play out in long takes with minimal camera movement — yields poignant rewards. But even these spurts of levity can’t negate the sorrow motivating most of the characters’ behavior. Early in the movie, Toby worries about the prospect of their getting caught, only to have Tanner cut him down, as if the thought were meaningless. “I never met nobody got away with anything, ever,” he says.