A sidewinding chase of sorts is the initial diagnosis in Hell or High Water, but Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay simmers everything way down with an atmosphere of squalid, ruined disenchantment. Two bank robbers – Toby (Chris Pine) and brother Tanner (Ben Foster) – are on the warpath, and Marshall Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is in pursuit. But Sheridan and director David MacKenzie are anything but acolytes of the placeless rip-roaring we might expect. When the film opens, we’re expecting a coiled king snake, and for a little while we’re on a locomotive to the inferno suggested by Sheridan’s previous screenplay for Sicario. But look again and the snake is actually roughened snakeskin, a bitter remnant of a venomous past life orphaned on the roadside, and if the train passes by too fast, we’ll gloss over the faded glory of that emblem of a once-living soul.
Which is to say, there’s some crackling and rough-housing to be found in Hell or High Water, but the overall demeanor isn’t unerring forward momentum but the circling dread and bedlam of a world of seeming vultures who are actually just trying to find a place for their next meal. In this case, the vultures are of two sets. The ones that manifest corporeally are the men and women of West Texas on any and all sides of the gun when Toby and Tanner blaze a trail of bank robberies to save their mother’s ranch from foreclosure. Choosing banks less as hoosegows for money and more as totems of the capitalist system that calcified the land their family lived on, the brothers’ faces are etched in the landscape itself, baked in the sun and damaged more secretively by the systemic forces dulling the characters’ identities and galvanizing the film’s sense of self by tracking the contours of modern ennui.
Those systemic forces are the other variety of vultures, the ones with the triggers that don’t always immediately kill you, preferring the more clandestine trajectory of slowly encroaching lifelessness and societal jaundice. We don’t always see the guns, but Hell or High Water vividly traces the impacts of their long arms. Initially a thriller, the film doesn’t hightail it out when the going (politically speaking) gets tough, emerging as a B-picture that surveys the often socially astute, carnivorous caliber of B-pictures throughout history. Initial feints toward seediness camouflages a more astringent, downtrodden atmosphere, with Toby and Tucker’s robberies back-dropped – and marshaled – by the destroyed articles of the Old West the film contemplates visually.
What looks like a stubborn world that seems relaxed or unwilling to swivel into the new millennium eventually coalesces as a world of people so aware of the weight, both corporate and humidity, their every movement must weather. Everyone is packing heat, but the pitiless sun packs even harder, over-heating MacKenzie’s lyrical sparseness into an aesthetic for a sabotaged, enervated space dotted with people cast adrift in a world without much desire for them. The towns aren’t synonyms for one another either, nor are the people placeholders. Toby disguises shyness and confusion with solemnity (and provides hot-young-thing Chris Pine a vehicle to grow) while Foster’s Tanner is an itchy beast cracked one too many times by society’s whip and ready to crack back, a hot-wired raptor let loose in a dispossessed world. And Marcus evinces a casual respect for the brothers’ us-against-the-world ways, but his respect is diamond-cut by a caustic, deeply cynical sense of passive onlooking at a slipshod civilization just itching to spiral into pandemonium.
Not really an artisanal masterpiece, much of the style is hewn from familiar parts. They’re just fabricated from different factories here; Tanner’s serpentine charisma and Toby’s disaffection anticipate stock types but instead crystallize as configurations of coping. If near-pandemic is its endpoint, the film also massages out the causes and the contours of dehumanizing modern aimlessness that slowly but surely coaxes, or demands, pandemonium as the only conceivable fallout. The bucolic becomes a wiry world on its last legs, discharging bullets perhaps because it can’t conceive of another option, or perhaps because no other options structurally exist anymore.
Ultimately, the topography of emptiness is charted in the cartographical black smoke of the film’s yellow-caked mise-en-scene that pours into every crack it can, turning cinematic genre structures (the good old boys on the run, the lawman, an aesthetic that could comfortably fit a Rhode Island’s worth of tumbleweeds) into a glass mirror to our soul. The stylistic frugality is no excuse for barbaric simplicity either. Although the film seldom reprieves itself from its potentially monotone and casually fatalistic bent, undercurrents of gallows absurdism provide satisfying wrinkles in the formula, incarnating a less sinewy, more homespun take on Sicario’s border-town misery. Even the humor gets in on the parched aesthetic, with the screenplay infused with an easy-going but wry, restless sense of comedic minutiae that doesn’t torpedo the suspense but instead gifts it with character-driven body. Robberies aren’t staged so much as fumbled through or figured out in-media-res, a human messiness on the film’s part that connects the two good old boys to the world around them and also shifts their essences from caricature to characterization. Tense, anxious unease courses through the film’s veins, but it can slip between modes on the drop of a dime.