Hell Or High Water | Why it’s still one of the great thrillers of the past decade

Hell Or High Water - beloved by John Woo
Share this Article:

Director David Mackenzie, writer Taylor Sheridan, and a starry cast including Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges put in some of their finest work in 2016’s Hell Or High Water.

NB: The following contains mild spoilers for Hell Or High Water.

It’s the contasts, isn’t it? The cops and the criminals, the humour and the sadness. Everything in Hell Or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie and first released in 2016, is all in such perfect, delicious tension.

It’s also wonderfully cast – this is one of those rare films where everyone feels faultless, from the smallest parts to the largest. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as the two old Texas rangers on the tail of the two bank robbers, or any actor other than Margaret Bowman in her one-scene turn as the kooky old waitress ranting about corn on the cob and green beans in some forgotten backwater diner.

There are all sorts of genre elements in Hell Or High Water – heist, drama, thriller – but it’s also a particularly modern, haunted sort of western. As Texan ranch owner and outlaw Toby Howard, Chris Pine is every inch the classic cowboy figure, with his good looks and icy blue eyes. But look again: he’s reed thin, almost under-nourished, his expression furtive and weary.

Contrasting him is Ben Foster as his deranged, fearless brother, Tanner – fresh out of prison, he’s the true hardened criminal of the pair, yet he’s also childlike and even sympathetic in his quieter moments. It takes an actor of real skill to bring humanity to someone who also happens to be a cold-blooded killer.

On the other side of the law, there’s Jeff Bridges as Marcus, the gruff, archetypal cop who’s only a few days away from retirement. Riding along with him, and sitting patiently through Marcus’s sometimes playful, occasionally cruel banter, is his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

If the law enforcer on the cusp of handing in his badge and gun is a thriller cliche, the driving factor behind Toby and Tanner’s bank robberies is refreshingly unusual.

After what appeared to be a long period of ill-health, the Howard brothers’ mother died, leaving them with a ranch, a sizable chunk of land, but also a considerable bank loan secured against the property. If the debt isn’t paid, then the brothers lose the ranch to the bank. Toby and Tanner therefore hatch a plan: hit a bunch of banks in rapid succession, stealing just enough cash from each to pay off their debt without triggering a gigantic manhunt by the FBI.

As one banker who’s sensitive to the brothers’ cause observes, “To see you boys payin’ those bastards back with their own money? Well, if that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.”

Written with the usual wit and economy by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River, Yellowstone), Hell Or High Water reveals plenty of details about its characters through those bank heists alone. Toby’s the more intelligent and calculating of the pair, but he’s slow on his feet and fractious in the midst of a robbery; Tanner’s more self-confident, but his recklessness belies a sociopathic streak that gradually becomes clearer later on.

Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up) brings an outsider’s eye for detail in his depiction of a dusty, rural West Texas. Hell Or High Water is set in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the signs of gutted communities and crumbling industries are everywhere.

Cowboys usher their scrawny cattle across the landscape, muttering about their offspring’s lack of interest in continuing the family business (“And I wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living…”). The towns’ streets are tired and empty – worn down by years of under-investment and poverty. As Alberto, himself a Native American, puts it: “Hundred and fifty years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land… until the grandparents of these folks took it. Now it’s been taken from them – except it ain’t no army doin’ it.”

All of this might make Hell Or High Water sound like a sad, funereal film, and in some ways it is – as Mackenzie once told me, it’s “a hymn to the passing of the Old West”.

But it’s also a drily funny film – often unexpectedly so. A scene in which Marcus and Alberto attempt to order some lunch from a particularly ornery small-town waitress is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Throughout, Sheridan displays a keen ear for unusual turns of phrase – the way Toby mumbles a quiet, “Thanks much” when he pays a bill. The miniature tensions that crackle between Marcus and his partner, or Toby and his brother.

To an extent, the way Hell Or High Water was shot informed the contrasting style and pace of its characters on either side of the law. Chris Pine could only spare two-and-a-bit weeks to work on the movie, so his scenes with Ben Foster were shot earlier on and at rapid pace. “Then they left,” Mackenzie recalled in 2016, “and Jeff [Bridges] and Gil [Birmingham came in and brought a different vibe. It was less of a panicked schedule, and that allowed them to be a bit more languid – those two different flavours definitely helped. It wasn’t deliberate, but we made an advantage out of it.”

Hell Or High Water takes place in the wake of the financial crisis, but it remains equally relevant almost a decade after it was shot – not least because the colossal divide between the richest one percent and the rest of us has only grown since. Barely anyone responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis faced justice – a fact echoed in multiple films released since 2008, including The Big Short (2015) and 2023’s Dumb Money, and more besides.

In the years of the pandemic, the wealth of the world’s top 10 billionaires more than doubled while average wages have stagnated or fell. Hell Or High Water explores – through the prism of a thriller – what happens when ordinary people, exhausted and worn down by years of poverty or just about getting by, resort to desperate measures in order to make ends meet.

As Toby puts it in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, “I’ve been poor my whole life. It’s like a disease passing down from generation to generation.”

That line is delivered late on in the movie, in an intense stand-off between Toby and a quietly enraged Marcus. For a moment, Sheridan’s tale threatens to end with a traditional one-on-one gunfight; but like so much in the film, it’s deferred (“Hey, if you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime…”).

Hell Or High Water doesn’t conclude with a moment of release – just more tension. As in real life, stories don’t necessarily get a neat, happy ending. Villains, whether corporate or otherwise, don’t always get their day in court. Justice may be served another day – or perhaps never.

Share this Article:

More like this