Harsh times call for desperate measures in David Mackenzie’s riveting crime thriller set in contemporary West Texas, where avaricious, corporate-driven America has ravaged close-knit communities.
Hell Or High Water cranks up tension with deceptive ease courtesy of a lean script by Taylor Sheridan, who had us biting our nails down to the cuticles last year with the Oscar-nominated action thriller Sicario.
Sheridan should expect similar plaudits for his exemplary work here, underpinning a familiar morality tale of world-weary cops and robbers with a touching portrait of brotherly love in dire straits.
Northumberland-born director Mackenzie, who made the extraordinary prison drama Starred Up, skilfully orchestrates propulsive action sequences and scenes of aching introspection.
He immerses us in the daily sweat-soaked grind of richly drawn characters, who believe their only course of action is to don ski masks and strike back at financial institutions, which have crippled friends and God-fearing neighbours.
These men might flout the law and occasionally spill innocent blood, but Sheridan’s script repeatedly emphasizes the rigorous moral code that the thieves follow on behalf of the disadvantaged people they love.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is determined to save his family’s Texas ranch from foreclosure by robbing banks with his fiery-tempered brother, Tanner (Ben Foster).
They plan to hit several branches of Texas Midland, which they hold responsible for their financial woes, and use the ill-gotten gains to secure a legacy for Toby’s embittered ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) and two sons.
“Planning and doing are two different things,” Toby cautions Tanner, who is prone to reckless acts of violence.
The opening heist of a branch managed by Mr Clauson (William Sterci) goes smoothly, but as the deadline for foreclosure looms, the siblings take risks to reach their target.
Their larcenous activities pique the interest of cantankerous Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is poised to retire after years of dedicated service.
“I don’t know how you are going to survive without somebody to outsmart,” quips Hamilton’s half-Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who suffers a barrage of playful jibes on account of his mixed heritage.
The case gathers momentum and Hamilton and Parker edge closer to their prey.
Hell Or High Water is another triumph for Mackenzie, who expertly navigates the shifting relationships between men of shared blood and purpose.
Pine is a revelation in a role that ignores his pretty boy good looks, while Foster burrows beneath the chapped skin of his hot-headed ex-con.
Bridges delivers a masterclass in gruff cynicism and his verbal jousting with Birmingham is peppered with cracking one-liners (“Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle!”)
Delicate shades of grey separating heroes and villains compel us to ignore our own moral compasses and root for hunters and the hunted.
Crime pays only those willing to risk everything.