Few movies have captured the mood of the country as adeptly as “Hell or High Water,” a rumination on the economic collapse of the American system camouflaged as a neo-Western about bank robbers vs. lawmen.
Of all the best picture contenders, this is the most engrossing and accessible. So many of the other nominees hold viewers at a distance; this one corrals them from the opening scene. But there’s a deeper message at work here.
We first see a line of graffiti that decorates the wall outside a bank: “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.”
Then we’re introduced to brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) as they don ski masks to rob a series of rural outposts belonging to a Texas chain of banks. Yet their method seems so restrained and calculated. What is their endgame?
On their trail are gruff Texas Rangers Marcus (Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges) and long-suffering Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The soon-to-retire Marcus may constantly aim racial insults at his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner, but, he predicts: “In a year’s time, it’s my teasing that you’re gonna miss.”
Directed by David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) and written by Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan (last year’s stellar “Sicario”), the road movie pits the two pairs against each other (and often against themselves) as the stakes climb higher, along with the body count. The parallels are clear: Both the outlaws and the lawmen are interested in seeing justice served, and both have a funny way of going about it.
The picture teems with memorable supporting parts, even down to the bit players, from a flirty waitress (Katy Mixon) who would rather lie to the law and keep her $200 tip, to a not-flirty-at-all waitress (88-year-old Margaret Bowman) who perplexes the Rangers with the question, “So what don’t you want?” — a diner scene that rivals the infamous chicken salad sandwich conversation from “Five Easy Pieces.”
It wasn’t until a second viewing of “Hell or High Water” that it became obvious how its implications are heralded in nearly every stray image. There’s not a cutaway shot to be found that doesn’t reveal either a foreclosure sign, a billboard for debt relief, a bank advertisement, a graveyard of farm equipment or oil machinery pumping away — all connected pieces to the story’s unfolding puzzle.
The title is drawn from the red-state idiom “come hell or high water,” meaning a deed will be completed no matter what happens. That’s the spirit showcased by the “heroes” in this beautiful, desolate film. And it’s also one exemplified by filmmakers Mackenzie and Sheridan, who manage to sneak a significant social and political statement within the fistfights, shootouts and car chases.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”