As timely a film as exists in 2016, David MacKenzie’s Hell or High Water taps into the economic anxiety of a white, male working class that has seen its fortunes dwindled and stolen by the titans of Wall Street- it’s kind of the perfect vehicle for the angry Bernie Bro out there. I won’t equate it to the other object that falsely seeks to exploit white anger this year- unlike that delusion, at least this film directs the scorn towards those who deserve it. Best of all, it does so in the guise of a modern day noir, an anti-western that uses richly drawn characters and great actors to develop a more old-fashioned story that gives us a satisfying tale of robbers and revenge.
Bank robber movies have been done to death, but a good screenplay can always mine the most out of secondhand elements or familiar material. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star in this one as Texas brothers whom we drop in on in the middle of their scheme to rob local banks of small amounts of cash in order to cover their tracks from the authorities. Foster is the ex-con participating in his younger brother’s plot to buy back the house of their deceased mother from the banks that have mortgaged it beyond all reason. This is a tale of revenge of the little guy, and even though the brothers aren’t exactly full on heroic, the anger they feel and the wrongs done to them by those who get away with far more intricate crimes provide us with understandable antiheroes, in the vein of all the great film noir.
Our more traditional hero is the the Texas ranger tasked with tracking down the brothers, also a familiar, grizzled presence, reliably played by Jeff Bridges at his most world-weary, broken down, and casually racist, an old man on the verge of retirement who expects this case to be his last hurrah. This is Archie Bunker again, a lovable curmudgeon who knocks out racist insults towards his Mexican and Native American partner, but really loves him deep down (of course), and can understand the anger that drives Pine and Foster to do what they’re doing. This is less of a cat and mouse game and more of a character study, as we get to know the brothers and Bridges' backstories as we follow the efforts from both the brothers to complete their scheme before time catches up with them, and the rangers on the trail. The script unfolds its layers over time, as we find out exactly what endgame Pine has in mind and for what reasons, and the kind of brilliant means through which he intends to carry this out.
As you might expect, we do reach the shootout portion of our story- come on, this is Texas, right? Given the subtle (and not so subtle) politics of the script, the weak and minor female characters, the knocks against political correctness, all played against the good intentions and sacrificial actions of our white male protagonists, it’s hard not too see this as a celebration of good white guys with guns doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and it’s hard not to root for them as they do so. That’s what happens in the best noir- we root for the criminals, the unfairly targeted, we understand their anger and their motivation and we redirect it toward those who’ve wronged them far worse. You have to get down in the mud to get what’s yours sometimes, and when it’s all crafted and written so meticulously and well acted with the best of them, it’s impossible to resist. But there’s an anger in me right now that feels hard to redirect away from the self-righteous Bernie Bros themselves, so I can appreciate this film without quite feeling the need to slobber all over its sense of moral superiority.
* * * 1/2