Hell or High Water, director David Mackenzie’s modern day cops and bank robbers western set in the barren wastelands of West Texas, comes out on home video today, likely just the latest pitsstop on its way toward a healthy run through awards season. It is currently the highest grossing indie film of the year (at least in the U.S.) as well as one of the best-reviewed. It also happens to be my favorite film of the year, one whose commentary on poverty in America is all the more meaningful in a world in which Donald Trump successfully mobilized/exploited disenfranchised white working class voters in his quest for the Presidency.
Not that such resonance was ever intentional. As the UK-born Mackenzie recently told KCRW, “We shot the movie a year and a half ago, at which time Mr. Trump wasn’t really in the limelight at all in the way he became. We had no idea what happened in this country was going to happen. It seems kind of interesting that the film was swimming in the waters that were part of that force or whatever you want to call it. It makes me think that the film was observing the right thing, but completely by accident.”
To Mackenzie, who was previously mostly known for indie films made in the UK like Young Adam, Hell or High Water’s script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) caught his eye due to the way it blended the conventional elements of a cops and robbers story with social commentary on the predatory practices of banks. The script, which made The Black List, was inspired by Sheridan’s experiences growing up in Texas, with Jeff Bridge’s retiring federal marshall character being directly based on Sheridan’s cousin Parnell McNamara, who struggled with his retirement from service and now serves as a sheriff.
In the film, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner, the former a divorced father of two, the latter a perpetual screw-up fresh off a 10-year prison stint for bank robbing. We meet them as they amateurishly make their way through a robbery of a small town bank, Toby clearly using this as a means to an end and Tanner in it for the adrenaline rush. It is a highly comical scene, but as FilmInquiry’s Danielle Moore wrote there is more going on here than one might immediately realize:
The first clue that these robbers are sensitive to the similar plights of their fellow West Texas denizens comes in an exchange between older brother and Toby and the only patron in the first bank they rob.
When chided by his ex-convict brother for not foisting the patron’s gun, Toby gingerly retrieves it from the man’s hip holster with far less brutality than one might be tempted to expect, given his brother’s loudmouthed aggression. “Y’all gonna steal my gun, too?,” the patron, a hardy white-haired Texan, retorts.
In response, Toby makes a decidedly genteel clarification, one that would not be warranted were his own financial straits not so dire, and by extension, were he not so conscious of the vulnerability to dispossession faced by his fellow citizens: “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank.”
Thus, from the get-go Hell or High Water identifies the true villain of the story, which is neither the cops nor the robbers but instead the bankers and our financial institutions. However, this isn’t a top-down view of the subject, ala The Big Short or even Jodie Foster’s Money Monster. Instead, Hell or High Water has more in common with 99 Homes in its view of the bottom feeders (e.g., so many “debt relief” and “fast cash” signs dot the countryside) of this economic shitstorm which motivated so many red state Americans to support the candidate who both promised to bring back jobs and also basically burn down the entire system. Whether or not Trump will want to or even be able to do either might be beside the point; it just felt good to hear.
As one middle-aged, small-town Texas waitress says in Hell or High Water when asked how long she’s lived in town, “Long enough to watch the bank gettin’ robbed, it’s been robbing me for thirty years.” In this part of the country filled with nothing but modern day ghost towns, there is clearly no love lost for the institutions which have screwed them over so severely.
This was an unmistkable feeling Mckenzie picked up on while filming Hell or High Water in New Mexico (doubling for West Texas);
People are imagining the political infrastructure can be dismantled in some way or improved, but nobody really knows how. It’s a desperation that makes a certain part of the electorate go “Let’s rip it up” because chaos is preferable to the status quo.” These are strange times, I think. Out film kind of taps into that sense of dispossession which came about from the recession or whatever you call the crash of 2008. Traveling through Texas and New Mexico, you still feel all that, you still feel the “for sale” signs. You have a sense that that landscape never recovered.
Bridges shares his director’s sentiment, telling EW, “The story the movie is telling shines a light on why the election went the way that it did, and how seriously disappointed many people have been in the way that the government is running. They have little faith in it, and we’ll see. I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here.”
As the film progresses, the brothers continue to knock off small town banks, leaving federal marshalls Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) scrambling to keep up and predict their next move. We come to learn Toby and Tanner are only in it to raise the necessary capital to save their family’s ranch, which is tied up in a reverse mortgage their mother had to enter into in order to cover her medical bills from her death bed. The bank now wants to take the home away from them, especially since it sits above a recently discovered oil deposit. However, if the brothers can pay back the loan the house and the oil is their’s meaning Toby will be able to give his children and estranged ex-wife a better life than he ever had.
Of course, it takes a while for Hell or High Water to unspool all of these plot points. As I wrote in my review earlier this year, “Sheridan’s script takes its time without feeling like it’s wasting our’s, and cinematographer Giles Nutdgens’ camera lingers on the dilapidated buildings and empty fields dotting the countryside without ever feeling too sledgehammer about it. Some scenes feel like practical tone poems, such as the brothers, on the eve of their last big gig, playfully goofing around while the moonlight perfectly illuminates the vastness of their ranch. Hell or High Water is ultimately a big story (weep for West Texas) told in a small way (weep for these brothers).”
It’s a film which is definitely worth your time, especially for what it tells us about the disenfranchised people of America who just elected a President who appears in so many ways to be a walking nightmare. As David Mckenzie said, to the people of the world depicted in Hell or High Water chaos is preferable to the status quo because they’ve been living in a nightmare of crushed ambitions and decaying towns for too long.
Sources: EW, Film Inquiry, KCRW