A worthy nominee for Best Picture, Hell or High Water uses the story of two competing pairs of characters to explore larger economic themes, an approach which constitutes a bold and relevant interpretation of the western genre. With a duo of ruffians out on a bank robbing spree and a gruff lawman determined to run them down, Hell or High Water takes the tropes and style of a classic western and adeptly transposes them onto a modern setting. We’ve just traded horses for Fords.
“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an angry piece of graffiti in the film’s opening shot – a slowly panning long take which reveals our two lead characters in the midst of a bank robbery. The spray-painted words are seemingly innocuous, but they establish a thinly veiled frustration and dislike for the financial industry which pervades the story. The two brothers robbing the bank, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are no heroes – they’re robbing the rich to give to themselves – yet their vendetta feels completely justified and is portrayed sympathetically.
They target a specific chain: the Texas Midlands Bank, a branch which spent a lifetime taking advantage of their recently deceased mother. With a reverse mortgage to pay off and a fierce determination to pass the oil bearing family land down to his sons, Toby enlists the help of his ex con older brother, Tanner, who joins the crusade for the thrill of the lawbreaking. Surrounding them are an oddly sympathetic cadre of associates who are in it simply to watch them stick it to the man. A friend at an impound lot supplies them with getaway cars and a dirty lawyer helps them manage their finances. “To watch you pay those bastards with their own money… if that ain’t Texan I don’t know what is,” he remarks idly.
Of course, not everyone supports their law breaking. Enter Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), two Texas rangers who trace the outlaw duo’s tracks across central Texas. Bridges is back in familiar territory in the role of Marcus, a weary, but experienced ranger three weeks from retirement and dreading his relegation to his own front porch. Bridges’ trademark drawl imparts Marcus with an affable gruffness that compliments the character’s delicious surplus of dry wit. His numerous verbal jabs at his partner yield laughs aplenty, yet never disrupt the film’s grim, dramatic tone. Like Sigourney Weaver in science fiction, Bridges presence is comforting and serves to legitimize the film as a western despite its modern setting and sentiments. Furthermore, his casting lends an element of meta commentary to the character of Marcus – the two of them are both getting a bit old to be running down outlaws. Marcus is by far the most memorable character in the film and Bridges portrays him with the skill we’ve come to expect from the veteran actor. His Oscar nomination is well deserved.
Easily overlooked, yet remiss to ignore is Marcus’ half Mexican half Indian partner, Alberto, solidly played by Gil Birmingham. Though mostly content to follow Marcus’ lead while enduring his playful insults, it is through Alberto that the film reveals that, while the rangers may be duty bound to uphold the law, they hold no love for the banks. In a rare moment of profundity while on stakeout at a small town branch, Alberto discuses his people’s legacy – how his ancestors lost their land to the grandparents of the townsfolk, people who are in turn having the land stolen from them. “Except it ain’t no army doing it,” he remarks, gesturing at the bank the pair are guarding. “It’s that son of a bitch, right there.”
The economic tensions underlying the film are similarly reflected by the setting. Broken down, shabby buildings and dusty, arid fields provide the backdrop for our pursuit. On the road, billboards promising quick, easy loans break up the landscape, while forays into towns reveal struggling communities. “Enjoy this little town,” Marcus tells his partner. “From everything I see, It’ll die long before I do.”
The looming specter of economic ruin recalls the recent financial collapse of 2008. Indeed, if Hell or High Water has a villain, it is the banking industry itself. In the wake of a recovering economy and an election season whose rhetoric often demonized big banks and wall street interests, this film’s sentiments could not be more timely.
In the face of such world altering forces, the characters in our story of cops and robbers feel like equal victims of circumstance. By twist of fate they find themselves on opposite sides of the law and we, the audience, are caught in the middle, our sympathies cleanly divided as their inevitable confrontation draws ever closer. Boasting a tense finale with a tantalizing conclusion, Hell or High Water ends as it began – with a slowly panning long take which bookends the whole exemplary experience. This remarkably relevant western is not to be missed.