The modern-day Western “Hell or High Water” follows a grizzled Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) as they investigate a string of robberies committed by bandit brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster).
The striking thing about the movie, directed by David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) and written by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), is how little the details of the plot actually matter when it comes to the larger portrait it paints of the West Texas community being depicted.
This is less about the particulars of this investigation than it is the sense of loss and malaise that permeates a universe obliterated by the harsh economic realities that have devastated such a large swath of rural America.
The brothers aren’t ripping off the banks in any sort of get-rich quick scheme; Pine’s Toby Howard has serious debts to pay and no other way out from the muck. They only steal precisely what they need. Bridges and Birmingham’s characters only get involved in the investigation after the FBI turns it down, in what amounts to a desperate bid on behalf of Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton to avoid the emptiness of his pending retirement.
The cumulative effect, when blended with mournful shots of the dust-strewn landscape and a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is to place the movie in a recognizable realm. There’s a real sense of desperation embedded in the core of the picture, so that when violence comes it serves as less of a visceral thrill than the climax of a meditation on hopelessness set beneath vast and sunny skies.