One of the more nebulous aspects of a film definitively set in a real city, state, and/or country is how it captures its spirit. It doesn’t necessarily have to be representative of the actual location, but for whatever reason the movie tends to feel more authentic, more grounded in a mood than if it focuses too much on other aspects. Hell or High Water is a prime example of this importance, drawing on it as definition for practically every relationship and interaction. The narrative, following two brothers that rob small banks to pay off the debt on their family ranch and the one-month-from-retirement sheriff that aims to stop them, is simple enough, but what attracts the viewer is the attention paid to the times in between the heists, as the nature of the Wild West is explored and reinforced in modern times.
This is not to say, of course, that the film loses interest when it comes to the heists. As directed by David Mackenzie, there is a great deal of tension brought forth by Giles Nuttgens’ slow camera moves, zeroing in on a hapless clerk as she is about to fall into the robbers’ trap. But until the unexpectedly violent final heist, there is hardly any violence, and the tension is occasionally defused by the brothers’ amateurish efforts and Tanner’s (Ben Foster, magnetic in his volatility) occasional temper, in ways that are both hilarious and worrying.
The brothers, Tanner and Toby (Chris Pine, enormously sensitive and stolid), and their relationship form the heart of the film, both in a narrative and an emotional sense. Despite their noticeable differences, from their emotional state to their backgrounds (Tanner is an ex-convict while Toby is robbing solely for the farm and his sons), there is a true tenderness, as the importance of family is emphasized from scene to scene. This is mirrored, most notably in a cross-cutting where the two pairs both stay in (vastly different) hotels for the night, by the playfully antagonistic behavior between the two Texas Rangers on their heels, Hamilton (an appropriately gruff Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham, admirably understated). Hamilton is repeatedly mentioned as being on his last legs, but there is a burning drive that he shows in pursuing the robbers, while Parker offers support and receives frequent stereotypical jokes. Though this doubling certainly isn’t meant to be taken literally, it does ensure that the main through line, that of Texan thinking, is sustained.
And that, ultimately, is what sets Hell or High Water apart. It is not necessarily a deconstruction so much as an examination of the ideal of the cowboy. The three main characters (with all due respect to Parker, who is set apart in some ways by his race despite being a Ranger) all exhibit traits of this mythic figure to some degree, especially Bridges, and much is made of the masculinity that it invokes. But it is the one that least embodies the cowboy, Toby, who makes it out the richest—he has the roots to something outside of the lawlessness of the Wild West, whereas the other two do not. None of this is made transparent, but Taylor Sheridan’s magnificent screenplay teases these ideas out slowly, and marries them to a sharp, witty portrait of modern Texas, adding flavor with various small female parts, especially two truculent waitresses, that almost overshadow the central male figures at times. Hell or High Water may be too intently focused on the genre elements at times to stand out especially, but it embodies its location so successfully. It is tender, profane, and resolute, and in the words of one of the minor characters, “if that isn’t Texan, I don’t know what is.”