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Who's robbing whom? 

'Hell or High Water' poses the question.

click to enlarge CRIMINALS OR CLASS HEROES?: Ben Foster (Tanner Howard) and Chris Pine (Toby Howard) dodge a Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on a bank-robbing spree in hopes of saving the family farm.
  • CRIMINALS OR CLASS HEROES?: Ben Foster (Tanner Howard) and Chris Pine (Toby Howard) dodge a Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on a bank-robbing spree in hopes of saving the family farm.

During the two bank robberies that occur before the title sequence for "Hell or High Water" rolls, what you notice about brothers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is their homemade ski masks, the eye and mouth holes jagged, irregular cuts made in some other garment. These guys are not professionals, though they do have a plan. Each time they hit a new branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in some decrepit West Texas town, they take only the cash from the drawers — a few thousand dollars a pop. It's small potatoes in terms of the bank's actual holdings, but, as we slowly come to discover, the stakes could not be larger for this family.

The Tanner brothers quickly draw the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges at his grizzled best), who, in keeping with genre convention, has just received a letter informing him of his upcoming mandatory retirement. Marcus throws himself into this last hunt with gusto, dragging his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) through a near-deserted Texas landscape littered with rusty oil rigs, weathered ranch houses and bright new billboards advertising debt consolidation loans to a new generation of desperate folk. 

As Alberto observes, when the white man came to the area, he took Indian land with military force, but now the land is being stolen all over again — or in the words of one local witness, when asked how long he's been here: "Long enough to watch the bank get robbed that's been robbing me for 30 years." While "come hell or high water" is a common phrase employed to describe overcoming whatever difficulties may arise, it's also a colloquial term in contract law, the "hell or high water" clause mandating continual payment no matter the circumstances in which the paying party finds himself. The regular brush fires that dirty the landscape give some sign as to how that Faustian bargain with the banks turned out for most people here.

Like its protagonists, the movie "Hell or High Water" plays for small stakes but never fails to take the game seriously, with the actors embracing their roles completely. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham needle each other like an old married couple, trading ethnic barbs and age-based insults. The guys they're chasing are a bit of an odd couple themselves; Pine's Toby is careful, thoughtful, while Foster's Tanner (in what is hands-down the best performance in the film) only ever truly relaxes when at the center of some mayhem. Even the minor characters are a delight, like the waitress who informs the Rangers exactly what they'll be having for lunch. Moreover, director David Mackenzie and editor Jake Roberts capture the real confusion of violence by holding steady, holding the shot, rather than reducing the action to an epileptic mess of camerawork; when the punch or gunshot slips in from out of frame, we feel the same shock as do the characters on screen. In fact, at some points the movie recalls Henri-George Clouzot's 1953 film, "The Wages of Fear," with moments that linger like a raised fist, leaving us wondering if the blow will actually land.

Folk singer Utah Phillips liked to tell the story of how his mother, a union organizer during the late Depression, made a scrapbook for him of newspaper articles on various heroic figures: "She favored bank robbers, called them class heroes." Are the Tanner brothers heroic figures? Ranger Hamilton insists that they must be held accountable for what ultimately occurs, as they put this whole thing into motion.

But did they? Who was the original thief whose deed set the ball rolling, and how far back did that crime occur? "Hell or High Water" doesn't pretend to answer that question, though by holding a mirror up to our mythic projection of the Wild West and its promise of independence, this heist movie forces us to confront certain truths about the project we call America, this place where our brothers' blood still cries out from the ground today as it has for centuries past.

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