Hell or High Water (2016): Taylor Sheridan’s Western, Starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine

If Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger, Marcus, is the heart of “Hell or High Water,” his quarry, the quiet-living, unlikely outlaw Chris Pine’s Toby Howard, is the film’s moral underpinning. 

Toby is no ordinary bank robber.  He’s not in it for the rush of the heist.  He’s not in it to roll in piles of money.  He’s been driven to the most quintessentially Western crime as a very personal form of redemption. 

For Chris Pine, the urge to play Toby in all his shadings began with a conversation with Taylor Sheridan – and a connection to the film’s themes.  “Taylor told me about his background, where he came from, what inspired him and his interest in the death of the West as we knew it.  I just fell in love with that and I made it a priority to make this role happen,” he says.  “Taylor’s script is all about people who are trying to connect yet are maybe incapable of doing so. Yet the beauty of these of these characters is that that at least they’re trying to do the right thing.  There’s a lot of moral greyness, which I think is a huge part of being human.” 

Sheridan was equally impressed during those conversations.  “Chris was acutely aware that Toby sees himself as an abject failure as a father, that he is broken and frayed, and the way he utilized that to cut to the core of his character is a real testament to his talent.  There’s also something about him that makes me think of a modern-day Gary Cooper.  Few people have that kind of quality anymore, but there’s a stillness to Toby that Chris manages to make very compelling.” 

Pine, renown for playing the strident young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek” series, saw a chance to make a rather significant departure with Toby, whose emotions are not so much explicit as they are slowly burning him up on the inside. “Toby is a quieter person than I’ve ever played before and I loved that about him,” Pine explains. “And I love the way the film depicts so honestly the way men interact with each other.  One of the interesting things about male relationships is you can sit together and not say anything, and it’s just as good as saying something.  Maybe even better. I loved exploring those kinds of moments Toby and Tanner and Toby and his son.” 

David Mackenzie enjoyed working closely with Pine to dig into the character’s layers, which emerge in the quietest moments.  “Chris loved the material and the character, and he totally understood that Toby is much quieter, more emotionally locked down and less showy than his brother.  As a movie star used to playing the more charismatic charming roles he was brave to hold all of these things back and let his character be worried and unable to have fun as he works to bring his plan to life.”

            Pine sees Toby and Tanner as trying, in spite of their own disappointing lives, to make a last stand for a family that has never been able to fulfill on the promise of safety a family should provide.  “This is a story not just about crime but also about roots and legacy, and to me, Toby and Tanner feel like they are the last of a lineage of failed men and women, and it’s come down to them to stop this cycle of violence and poverty and shame for good,” Pine explains. 

            He felt an instant empathy for Toby’s readiness to sacrifice himself to give his kids the chance he and Tanner never got.  “Toby’s had a rough go,” Pine continues.  “He’s got an ex-wife and two kids, but he hasn’t seen them in a year. He hasn’t been paying child support, and he’s been caring for his mother who passed way – only to find out the bank has completely screwed him over and is ready to repossess their land. The only way he can buy the house back — and give some kind of legacy to his children — is to rob the same bank screwing him over. It’s a choice he feels he has to make in order to protect his family.”

            Toby might have grit, but Pine admits he’s not exactly cut out to be a legendary thief.  “I think Toby’s an awful criminal,” Pine laughs.  “On the plus side, he’s smart and logical and has a solid plan – but I really don’t think he likes pointing guns at human beings, and that’s why he has to rely on Tanner, who is fierce and fearless and perhaps capable of anything.  Toby would not have been able to rob even a single bank without Tanner, and that’s part of what makes the duo so interesting.” 

            Pine greatly anticipated his reunion with Ben Foster, with whom he recently starred in the Coast Guard rescue drama “The Finest Hours,” as Tanner.  He loved that their characters’ energies are such extreme opposites, allowing them to push and pull one another. “Tanner’s a bit crazy, a bit charming, a bit fun, and a lot dangerous, and Ben is wonderful at that,” he says.  “He’s one of the most gifted, sensitive and intuitive artists I’ve worked with.”

            No matter how stark Tanner’s differences are from Toby, Pine says they have an unbreakable bond. “One of my favorite moments is when Tanner says I love you to Toby, right after he shot two people.  You realize that what he is saying is just as true as the violent act he just perpetrated.” 

            The filmmakers were gratified by Pine’s commitment to the role.  “Chris has that old school, quiet-yet-strong, masculine presence that was needed to make all of Toby’s contradictions work,” notes Julie Yorn.  Adds Carla Hacken: “Chris was so passionate about this role. He really honed in on Toby’s inability to express himself emotionally in words, and expresses the character’s emotions in his actions so powerfully.” 

Pine gives credit to director David Mackenzie’s loose, exploratory style for giving him the space to really dig under Toby’s thick skin.  “David makes process the focal point of everything,” Pine observes.  “He’s an experimenter, and the small, mobile crew made for a freeing atmosphere.” 

Though he’s constantly in demand for studio blockbusters, Pine says “Hell or High Water” is the kind of film he finds enlivening.  “The process of making this kind of film is the most soul and creativity stretching time you can have.  And those are the kinds of things I love to do,” he states. 

Ben Foster: How Brothers Connect

Like Chris Pine, Ben Foster says the film’s exploration of how brothers connect – and fail to connect – hit him with its authenticity. “I’ve rarely seen the element of brotherhood handled so elegantly and truthfully,” he says, “and having a younger brother myself it was really easy to feel attached to that exploration.” 

Foster – known for his award-winning turn as the villain in James Mangold’s remake of the classic Western “3:10 To Yuma” – has most recently played a Coast Guard rescuer in “The Finest Hours.”  He says he simply couldn’t say no to playing Tanner — though that was his first intention. 

“I was actually pissed off to get this script because I was intending to take some time off,” he remembers.  “But then I read it and the feeling was immediate.  I knew who this guy was and was ready to fight tooth and nail for it.  It’s a script that, every time you read it, you find another strand.  There are a lot of deep values that are being challenged in this story, which is exciting to see.” 

 As soon as he heard Chris Pine was playing Toby, the deal was fully sealed for Foster.   “We had just finished doing ‘The Finest Hours’ for three months and that really bonded us. I knew we could find that natural rapport of brothers together. This movie lives and dies on you on believing that these two men love each other, in whatever ways that they are able to express it.  So having that history already there, that care already established, was going to make it that much more powerful.” 

            Says David Mackenzie of how Foster tackled the role:  “Ben totally embraced Tanner’s tragic joie de vivre and set about trying to suck as much pleasure out of life as he could.   I had a lovely time working with both Chris and Ben and I’m very proud of what they’ve done – particularly the tough, understated brotherly love that they share.”  

            Tanner is by far the more impulsive and belligerent of the brothers, yet he is also more than the unhinged ex-con he appears to be at first glance.  Explains Hacken:  “Tanner is the brother who accepted there was no way out, no way to rise above his station, and therefore he was going to do what he wanted, no matter how much trouble he gets into.  And yet, there is a clear understanding that he has done and will do anything for Toby.” 

            Though Tanner has never taken the easy or straight road, Foster sees his character as having an exuberance that’s his way of grabbing onto life. “To me, he’s a man who loves his life.  He appreciates every moment because he knows it’s going to go fast,” Foster observes.  “He has survived abuse, prison and a life of hardship by loosening his reins, rather than tightening them.  Tanner’s a guy who might lick every finger after a meal.  He feels you’ve got to get it now, and it was interesting to lean into that and be reminded of the transience of this human experience.” 

            As for why Tanner protects Toby so relentlessly, Foster says:  “For them, love is not a negotiation.  You can fight.  You can curse. You can stop talking to each other.  But the love is never negotiable.”  He notes that even in the some of the chases that comes out. “Part of being brothers is being able to say, ‘we’ll push it to the very edge, but I trust you,” so we pushed some of the driving.”

            Production designer Tom Duffield was impressed by Foster’s driving skills, especially in the film’s climactic pursuit up a steep escarpment.  “Ben was great — he got the car up the hill farther than the stuntmen did,” Duffield recalls.  “I mean he was really fantastic and he did it all himself.” 

The intense connection between Foster and Pine was palpable to everyone on the set.  Says Marin Ireland, who plays Toby’s ex, Debbie: “Ben is such a livewire as Tanner and Chris is so guarded and shy as Toby and I think it’s really beautiful what they’ve done with these roles.”