At the end of July, the Alamo Drafthouse hosted the premiere of what promised to be a most “Texan” of movies, both in story, location, and creators. Granted, it takes more than a country drawl and having a character drink a Shiner to make for a true Texas movie, but in this case, Hell or High Water absolutely delivers.
From the pen of writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) comes a tale of family and failure, set against the backdrop of a West Texas that has seen better days. While the lack of Lone Star State film incentives kept production from happening in Texas proper, a similarly flat and arid section of eastern New Mexico does a serviceable job of representing the region, the same one this writer grew up in.
It’s not just referencing little towns like Childress and Post, Coleman and Archer City; the streets, diners, and ramshackle houses in which this story take place are all available to anyone who wants to get on I-10 (or 20 or 30 or 40) and head for the unpopulated part of the great state of Texas, the part that the rest of the state considers “the middle of nowhere.”
The characters in the movie reflect the character of the proud people of this region to a T. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Foster’s Tanner is that fella who’d be happy to whoop your ass for you outside the local honky tonk, while Pine’s Toby just wants to do right by his family, and is willing to go to any length to make that happen.
But herein lies the rub: The thing these boys are willing (and able) to do is rob banks. Specifically, a chain of banks that’s about to foreclose on the family farm after some unscrupulous loan dealings. And as far as family goes, Toby’s consists of an ex-wife and kids who don’t want to see him, while Tanner just might have taken care of their abusive pa while out on a hunting trip. Accidents happen.
Coming right on the heels of the bombastic summer tentpole Star Trek Beyond, this film shows a very different side of Pine. Rather than being THE alpha male–the leader, the mover, and the shaker–here he defers to his brother, staying quiet and somber throughout. The thing both characters have in common is a desire to help others in spite of the sacrifice it might take.
The other pair in this movie consists of a couple of Texas Rangers. (Think Walker, not Nolan Ryan.) Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) aren’t just the “good guys” out to solve a crime, but two men with a complicated relationship made more so by the former’s impending retirement, as well as his somewhat good-natured jibs at the ethnic heritage of the latter. While Sheridan uses this racial pseudo-animosity in furtherance of the tension between these two, it is ugly language, but not language unfamiliar to West Texas ears.
The film premiere featured all the principles in attendance and Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League leading a raucous Q&A. (Drinking all the way through a screening will do that to a panel.) To a man, the cast said they loved being a part of a film that explored the state of Texas, and Sheridan called it a love letter to his home state. He was even able to bring in his family’s ties to law enforcement–his uncle Parnell McNamara, a lawman from Waco, was in attendance–to bear in telling the story.
All in all, the movie does a great job of showing the state of modern-day West Texas, a land of boom-and-bust oil fortunes and a long-gone thriving farming economy. The towns there are in stasis, or more likely dying, and the people that remain often remain with little hope or prospects for the future. Hell or High Water captures the heartache and heartbreak of trying to survive such a situation.
If nothing else, the two hours spent in the theatre will keep you from having to drive out there yourself, and that’s not nothing.
Photo credits: Rick Kern/Getty Images for CBS Films