By Kevin Wilson
Clovis News Journal
“Hell or High Water” is a 102-minute argument that a good Western can be told with flashy casinos instead of dark saloons, Camaros and extended cabs instead of trustworthy horses and asphalt joining the dusty, unpaved roads.
Shot partially in eastern New Mexico, including in Quay County, with backdrops its residents will recognize from the first frame and throughout, the art formerly known as “Comancheria” greets us at the beginning of the Howard brothers’ bank robbing spree.
Jeff Bridges leads a well-rounded cast in a career leap for Director David Mackenzie (”Perfect Sense,” “Starred Up,” “Asylum”) and the latest success for screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (”Sicario,” “Sons of Anarchy”).
The Howard brothers — squeaky-clean divorcee Toby (Chris Pine, the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” movies) and career criminal Tanner (Ben Foster, “3:10 to Yuma,” “Lone Survivor”) knock off a pair of Texas Midland Bank branches, and quickly gain the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges).
Hamilton has one foot out of the door to retirement, but tells partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) he’d probably be happier dying in a gun fight with the bank robbers. That admission comes in a forest of targeted racist jokes; he promises Alberto he’ll poke fun at his Mexican heritage when he’s done roasting his Native American side.
Sheridan succeeds in making criminals relatable, and we get it in spades with the Howards and the citizens of the towns in their spree. Sprinkled throughout the towns are run-down Main streets where the bank is often the only building on the block that isn’t boarded up.
The conflict is, on the surface, the old Western theme of the sheriff trying to outsmart the outlaw, with law enforcement playing a rattlesnake ready to pounce on the criminal’s first mistake.
Beneath the surface is poverty and its crushing impacts. So crushing Toby laments how each Howard generation is born poor like it’s a disease. So crushing every other billboard promises to solve your debt. So crushing bank robbery and money laundering become reasonable, so long as you honor the covenant that no bystanders are hurt.
We realize the fictional Texas Midland Bank is a villain without a word of dialogue.
Hitting this particular chain at first seems motivated by its low degree of difficulty, as branches supply little staff or surveillance. The truth, however, is exposed as a delicious yet predictable comeuppance. When TMB does get hit, tacit accomplices include robbery witnesses who half-joke the bank robbed them for years and a lawyer who plays dumb when the Howards suddenly lucked into enough money to save the family farm.
Just know if — or when — the Howards break the covenant, they’re on their own.
Nobody steals the show, though Birmingham is stellar as the straightman to Bridges, a Native American Abbott to a playfully racist Costello. The bit characters are great, right down to a not-so-innocent hotel clerk and a silver-tongued waitress at a place that only serves T-bone steaks and only asks what side dish you don’t want.
The movie is a series of great choices, from abandoning the “Comancheria” title to giving us just enough violence and language to make it believable and earn its R rating.
The choices may not lead to an Oscar or Golden Globe, but they gave us a locally flavored western you shouldn’t wait to rent.
— 3.5 out of 4 stars
“Hell or High Water” opened Friday in Clovis’ Allen Theaters and across the country. Were you in it? Did you recognize scenes shot in Quay County? We’d like to hear what you think about the film. Email firstname.lastname@example.org