Year Released: 2016
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Gil Birmingham, Ben Foster
(R, 102 min.)
“We ain't stealing from you. We're stealing from the bank.” Toby Howard
The cat and mouse game between the wily Texas Ranger and the small time bank robbers he’s after will intrigue you, but the real payoff is not in dollars, but in the characters themselves.
Jeff Bridges as the about-to-retire Texas Ranger anchors the film. Don’t be disarmed by his aw shucks attitude or his Texas drawl. Marcus Hamilton has a mind as logical and precise as Sherlock Holmes. He sees the telling detail.
“Did you wait on these two handsome boys?” he asks a waitress who might have witnessed a robbery next store.
“What tells you they was handsome?” she protests.
“Because if they wasn’t, you’d a been outside in the parking lot waiting to greet us,” he says.
He has the patience to wait things out like Hercule Poirot, using his little grey cells to predict the place of the next robbery. And like Columbo, his casual manner masks an unrelenting persistence. Even after retirement, Marcus is compelled to tie up a few loose ends about the case.
He has the same folksy, anti-social “charm” as Tommy Lee Jones did in No Country for Old Men, where every line of the West Texas desert was etched into his face, the sad eyes as empty as the forlorn plains. But where that over-praised film bogged itself down with too many characters and subplots, Hell or High Water is a spare as the West Texas plains it inhabits.
Part of the charm of the film is the repartee between Marcus and his half Comanche half Mexican assistant Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus rails him with a series of jibes about his ancestry that Alberto accepts with a stoic frown and a few well-placed rejoinders himself about Marcus’s age. The frequency and intensity of their verbal sparring being the manly way to show their deep affection.
Equally interesting is Chris Pine as the brains behind the robberies. He doesn’t say much, but he transmits his pain, despair, and flinty determination with eyes as unreadable as the arid flats that surround him. In this film, less is more. We get just snippets of conversation between his bother Tanner (Ben Foster) and him, painting the landscape of their shared woes with a few broad strokes. Their dialogue is clipped and authentic, like brothers who share love, pain, and estrangement in equal doses.
The setting is almost a character itself. The dying towns with empty parking lots, lonesome diners frozen in time, the vast empty stretches of road that connect them, and the derelict oil wells that litter the landscape like cattle carcasses paint a picture of despair and quiet desperation. A despair only made more intense by huge garish billboards along the raod advertising quick loans and easy payments.
In many ways Hell or High Water plays out like a Greek tragedy with its impending anguish and irony. Several of the minor characters act like a Greek chorus commenting on the action, too.
Margaret Bowman plays a waitress as hard and mean as her bereft Texas town, a soulless hulk going through the motions of life only. A robbery witness says he has been there long enough to watch the bank getting robbed. Without missing a beat, adding, “It’s been robbing me for 30 years.”
A lawyer assesses the bank’s reverse mortgage succinctly as “just enough to keep your mama poor.”
Tanner, Toby’s ex-con brother, is a bit of the Greek seer: “I never met anybody get away with anything yet.”
No blaring rock score here, thank goodness, just a few simple and haunting songs with a single vocalist and a guitar. As stark and lonely as the men on screen.
You need to see this film, the first one that merits a trip to the cinema in months. The big screens have been dying all summer with their big budget flops. This beautiful swan song will make you forget their off key mediocrity.
Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is not one to back down from a fight, whether it’s with a stubborn witness or a cunning thief. But he and his partner Albert Parker are no match for the iron-jawed waitress at the small town café where they are marooned on stakeout.
Cantankerous from the get go, she greets the two rangers with. “What don’t you want?’
Only after a few feeble queries does she explain that the main course comes with either green beans or corn. Thus, “What don’t you want – green beans or corn?”
After a brutal recital of customers who requested outlandish dishes like trout, she lets the two lawmen know that the only order she will accept is for T-Bone, medium rare. Or to put it in her own words,
I've been working here since nineteen and eighty-seven. Ain't nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-Bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout. We ain't got no goddamned trout.
When Alberto, Marcus partner, sheepishly suggests cooking his steak medium instead of medium rare, she nails him with a deadpan stare.
“That wasn’t a question,” she sets him straight.
Well, even if the rangers refuse to rebel, we can. So, instead of plain T-bone, let’s indulge in that grand Texas tradition, Chicken Fried Steak with lots of Creamy Gravy.
Enjoy every decadent bite.
Texas Chicken-Fried Steak
1 1/2 cups flour 2 teaspoons kosher salt 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper 4 tablespoons paprika 2 eggs 1/2 cup buttermilk 1/2 cup Shiner Bock or other bock beer peanut oil, enough to cover meat halfway 4 tenderized round steaks (about 1/2 pound each) 2 cups Cracked-Pepper Gravy
Mix first 4 ingredients and set aside on a plate or wax paper. Whisk eggs in a large bowl, then add buttermilk and beer and whisk to blend. Set aside. In a deep, heavy skillet, heat oil to 350 degrees. While oil is heating, prepare the steaks by dredging them in flour mixture, coating evenly. Shake off any excess. Dip in egg batter, and then again in flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside. When oil temperature reaches 350 (a drop of batter will sizzle when dropped into it), gently slide one steak into the oil. Cook about 3 minutes, then turn it, taking care not to break the crust, and cook 3 more minutes, or until nicely browned. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the other steaks. Hold cooked steaks in a 225-degree oven until all are done. Serve with Cracked-Pepper Gravy. Serves 4.
1/2 cup unsalted butter 5 tablespoons flour 2 1/2 cups whole milk 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt 4 teaspoons cracked pepper
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low to medium-low heat. When foam subsides, add flour, whisking continuously until it cooks, becoming a fragrant light brown. Slowly add milk, whisking to keep lumps from forming. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes. Makes about 3 cups.