At the end of a long, hot summer of movies for (essentially) children, there’s a tendency for critics to overrate a film that at least pretends to be for adults. The latest example is the crime drama Hell or High Water, which has just opened wide after a few weeks in limited release. The movie certainly isn’t bad; it offers some pleasures and actually has relevant things on its mind, yet wears the relevance lightly. It’s hard, though, to escape the feeling that we’ve heard this story and met these characters before. The conflicts are deftly played, decently written. There’s a terrific moment when a character makes a crucial shot and then seems torn between laughter and tears. There’s little flab but also little poetry, little reason this had to be a movie instead of, say, a novel or a radio play — it’s a bit cinematically null.
The relevance comes in with the motive for two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), to rob a string of Texas banks. They’re raising money to pay off the mortgage for the ranch that belonged to their late mother. The twist is that they’re hitting branches of the same bank that holds the mortgage — they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s set to retire in three weeks. Marcus has an amiably insulting relationship with his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) — he says ironically bigoted things to Alberto we know he doesn’t really mean, and Alberto razzes Marcus about his impending obsolescence.
The brothers are mostly harmless, though Toby is capable of quick, decisive violence and Tanner has done time for killing their abusive father. For a while, they go from bank to bank without hurting anyone much. Then things go bad in a hurry, and the movie loses what garrulous Texan sprawl it had. There are a couple of funny scenes involving waitresses — flirtatious Katy Mixon, no-nonsense Margaret Bowman — which also, alas, points up that except for Marcus’ replacement toward the end and Toby’s ex-wife, waitresses and bank tellers are about all the women we see in this masculine world of guns, casinos and beer.
Fargo is missed in more ways than one, not only because Marge Gunderson is a more original hero than Marcus, but because Hell or High Water feels like an amalgam of Coen brothers films — Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, even True Grit with Bridges doing his gruff unintelligible shtick again — without the Coens’ sense of wit or play. Director David Mackenzie never does anything discordant but never does anything genuinely surprising, either. The comfort and pleasure many may derive from the film might issue from its very been-there-done-that quality. It is very much “a movie like they used to make in the ’70s,” only they used to make them with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a little more art.
The movie seems to want points for telling a small story about regular people, except that these are the kind of regular people one meets only in movies: the desperate but noble bank robber, his half-crazy brother, the soon-retiring good ol’ boy after them. These men could come across as archetypes rather than clichés, but they don’t. Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster try to make something dangerous yet relatable out of the brothers, and there’s a nifty bit of quietly combative dialogue at the end that would probably go down better if it didn’t seem so pleased with itself for drawing from the same well as Heat, American Gangster and many other movies in which adversaries sit and take each other’s measure. Hell or High Water is so busy taking inspiration from earlier movies that it forgets we’ve seen them too.