“Because brothers don’t let each other wander in the dark alone.” – Jolene Perry

Just when we thought that Westerns had about played out, along comes a savage, colorful, rich and wonderful piece: David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water.”

This is the ballad of the Howard boys, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine).

Toby, the younger, had no intention of becoming a criminal. Lost like many American boys in the shell game of modern finance, he struggled just to survive and hold on to his mother’s dirt poor ranch, a stark piece of forgotten Texas dirt.

Toby’s wife has divorced him and taken his two sons out of his life.

With little help from Toby, she lives in food stamp land, empty of dreams.

We learn early on that Mother Howard’s bleak landscape holds oil, a fact that the bank is also aware of.

Toby only has a few weeks to get up the cash. His plan is to snap it up, put it in trust for his boys, and break what he sees as the cycle of poverty that has plagued his family for generations, but his prospects are as thin as the water in the arroyos.

Then along comes brother Tanner, straight out of Hell and the state prison. Tanner has death written all over him as he draws his brother into a plan to save the ranch. With a reluctant but disheartened Toby in tow, they set about robbing three small banks owned by the greed-soaked Texas Midland group. They avoid the vaults and steal from the front desks until one day Toby’s greed darkens the day.

The FBI has no interest in petty cash holdups, but it’s big enough to interest the local Texas Rangers: retiring Ranger Marcus Hamilton (a great Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a stoic, humorless blend of old world Comanche and disciplined lawman.

Alberto wants a statewide manhunt, but a wiser Marcus knows they’re going to stay local. There’s a clue in the small game they’re playing, and he’s onto it. Marcus knows it’s the waiting game that wins.

As in the Great Depression, these lawmen are hard pressed to get help from the beaten down population. When one is asked, he replies, “Hell, them banks have been robbing me for years.” Bonnie and Clyde redux.

Among the locals there is a standout: Actress Katy Mixon plays a sweet diner waitress with two kids who is on the edge of losing her home. She tells her story to Toby in rich flirtatious tones. When he leaves, he drops $200 on the table. It will come to represent evidence and opens a scene between her and Bridges’ lawman. It’s a classic that touches the heart and earns our applause.

Bridges’ Marcus floats softly like smoke in a role with Tommy Lee Jones coffee stains on it, or maybe writer Sheridan just wanted to take Bridges’ aging “Big Lebowski” Dude to his final run. It works. Bridges is as usual towering, and Pine in a sympathetic role does beautiful work. Pine is headed upwards.

But it’s Ben Foster’s “Tanner” who owns the film. His end of the road misfit with nothing left to lose is powerful. He tosses stolen money around because it really means nothing to him, and in his final scene, atop his own High Sierra in a blazing sun, he makes his final moves that take him across his long overdue Rubicon.

It’s just one of dozens of his moments as brother bad that electrifies the screen. It ranks up there with Cagney’s Cody Jarret in “White Heat.”

Director MacKenzie, a Brit, has clearly grown up on American Westerns, but he paints his own mural of the bleak, windburned Western and broken populace with a clear fresh eye. It’s New Mexico, not Texas we see, but it’s still a vivid, angry-God’s country strewn with his broken children, and Mackenzie nails it. There is Steinbeck here. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear it.

Sheridan’s screenplay never wastes a word, and Giles Nuttgen’s camera catches each drop of human sweat and the last puffs of death’s dusty breath. It’s hypnotizing work.

“Hell or High Water” comes at the end of a dry summer and satisfies our thirst for great Western noir. Bravo.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor and the author of “Will Write For Food.”

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.