Ben Foster did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite receiving a few critical citations and winning the Independent Spirit Award, for portraying Tanner Howard in Hell or High Water.
One cannot hand wave, saying it was just the writing, Ben Foster's performance, when so many of his performances reveal hidden depths in the characters he's playing. Foster, even in a completely disposable action film like the Mechanic offers three dimensions to his character. So here he is in Hell Or High Water, a very well written film, but let's look at what Foster does. On the outset Foster grants you what you'd at least want from the "bad" brother/partner in terms of the most direct appeal of such a performance. In that Foster is incredibly engaging here, that's no surprise given it is Ben Foster. Ben Foster dominates though as he should in the robbery scenes. As I mentioned in Chris Pine's review for this film, Pine brought an awkwardness to the robberies, Foster brings the exact opposite. Foster in every robbery scene shows us a man who is absolutely in charge of the situation. He of course brings the needed intensity as he shows, at least towards the tellers and such, that creates the sense of a proper threat. He intimidates just as he should and offers the right almost predicable unpredictability to the proper bank robber.
Now the obvious diagnosis for Tanner would be that he is a psychopath, not unlike the clearly psychopathic Charlie Prince, I will now my make case against that claim, at least as the traditional sort of psychopath whose crazy for the sake of being crazy, through describing what Ben Foster does in the role. It would be easy enough to be that type of psychopath, Foster again excelled as such in Yuma though also brought additional depths to that character as well, which is the traditional approach to this type of character. This would also appear to make sense for Tanner's background given that he murdered his own father, and openly admits to that fact. That's not what truly defines Foster's take which actually grants a far more fascinating approach. Foster's work narrows upon what it is that Tanner truly gets out of the robberies. He definitely has fun with them, but what I love about what Foster does is that he doesn't engage this as a sadistic sort of fun. Foster in a way can convince you on the enjoyment of the robberies, as he eases Toby's own reservations, because the sort of fun he seems to be having is very appealing, at least early on. He makes it sort of endearing in the way he allows us and Toby to experience it ourselves.
There is more to be discussed on the whole psychopath aspect, but more on that soon enough. A highlight of the film, which there are plenty of, is the relationship between Toby and Tanner. I wrote in Pine's review that I would get back to it, and here it is since it is an essential element to what makes Foster's work so fantastic. The two merely are brothers in this film which is so special to see onscreen realized this well. That's a testament to both actors who go beyond any surface notions of such a relationship. They find the sheer complexity of it all through the sheer naturalism of both of their performances. Here's what's so great is that they don't switch, okay now they get along, now they don't. It is a far more fluid and genuine realization than that. It is never a single thing, which is what is so great about it. So many of the comedic moments of the film come so well, and are in fact quite hilarious by how good they are together. One of the best pieces of dialogue in 2016 has to be Foster expressing Tanner's consternation at getting Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper with "Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb" countered by Toby's hilarious reply "Drink up".
The history of the brothers is within every interaction we see between them and I love the rich texture they bring to this. It is a complicated relationship in that there is a definite divergence in their personalities, exemplified by Foster's more outgoing performance against Pine's understated work. It goes past that though in that Toby definitely has problems with Tanner's life choices and his unwieldy personality. Foster defines his portrayal though because he shows that Tanner unquestionably loves his brother, there's no complication in this, but he does not depict as simple either. Foster importantly has it taken for granted that Tanner always is the older brother to Toby. We see the different sides to what this means. During the bank robberies he both breaks his balls and supports him all the same. It is never false or contradictory. Every switch Foster is able to attach it to the very same sentiment of just the way Tanner treats his brother. Pivotal in that is in the moments where he teases Toby, there is such an overabundance of warmth within the teasing. When Tanner scares off a woman from Toby, it is without any ill-will towards Toby, Foster directs all at the woman suggesting the older brother always is looking out for his kid brother, even if it isn't always in the best of ways.
This is one of the most honest depictions of brothers that I have seen on screen. There are two scenes I especially love involving this. One is the very last scene the two share together. Foster is heartbreaking as he turns away yet so earnestly tells Toby that he loves him. Of course he follows this by saying he can "go fuck himself", but that in no way cancels the first statement. Instead Foster's joking delivery of the first, against the earnestness of the first, one so perfectly exemplifies their relationship, which is that the love is just a given even with complications around it. The other scene is less climatic but just as remarkable. It is basically a silent scene as we see the two of them at night as they are horsing around with one another. Foster and Pine are so good in that this just the boys being the boys they've been since childhood. Now back to the whole psychopath thing, which again is not handled with just the "I'm evil" sort of thing by Ben Foster. We hear his motivation to help Toby early on, as he directly verbalizes it as "Because you asked me to little brother", Foster performance shows this to be true in part, because he does love his little brother and would help him, yet it is not the whole story when it comes to Tanner's motivation.
We again see him around the robberies, and Foster shows that Tanner is absolutely loving every minute of it without question. There is something more to this though as again it isn't sadistic, at least in Tanner's mind. There is something so much more as in the joy there is also a real pride, which again more on that in a moment. This is in a stark contrast to what we see with Foster the rest of the time when he's essentially forced to face his life. When he is taken into the room where their sickly mother lived in just before she died, this could be a moment to show Tanner's disregard for her particularly with his final statement in the scene being a disregard, Foster shows the very real anguish in Tanner as he ponders if he could have done something. His final remark is delivered as sad reminder to himself that she never really loved him more than a bitterness towards her. There is another moment where Tanner speaks to his brother about his sons, and Toby says that his older son is a bit like Tanner. Tanner ruminates on his own mistakes while suggesting how his son can succeed, and Foster is outstanding by revealing such sorrow when Tanner really is forced to think about his life. Foster throughout the film interjects this affecting pathos that reveals how Tanner truly feels about himself. In that Foster shows that Tanner is actually quite self-loathing and is aware that he's basically a loser in normal existence. It is important look at say the scene where the brothers visit their lawyer, Foster shows Tanner is basically lost in average conversation, only coming alive when he can attempt to "support" his brother in some way. Foster utilizes this to give greater substance to Tanner's motivation, which his love for his brother factors in, but it's far more than that. Foster again has that pride within his enjoyment of it, and Foster behaves and speaks as an outlaw of the old west not the present day. That's not criticism, but it is a stroke of genius in Foster's work. He gives us a man whose doing the only thing that he's good at in these scenes furthermore it is the only part of his life that gives him any purpose. Near the end of the film when he walks towards a lynch mob, and scares them away with a machine gun, Foster walks with such swagger. Again Foster presents Tanner in his calling in these moments, as the "enemy to everyone", as opposed to the sad man he is otherwise.Yes this is indeed another great performance by Ben Foster. It's more though as it proves just how daring and nuanced his work as an actor is. This is indeed an entertaining performance that's fun watch. It's so much more still though in his ability grant far more to the character than would have been there otherwise. This is a phenomenal performance by a phenomenal actor.