Hell or High Water falls in line with the rise cinema reacting to the 2008 financial crisis. On a grand scale we saw last Adam McKay’s Big Short tackling Wall Street’s poor handling of the situation but also the under appreciated 99 Homes which made my top 10 ten list for 2015 with Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon portraying Floridians profiting off of foreclosures. Hight Water relates more with the latter as they are very similar when it comes to focusing on how a particular family adapts with the dour circumstances and the dark deals they must make to stay a float. Both aim to capture the desperation of a community already disenfranchised about to lose the little they have. The hell that is faced in David Mackenzie’s film is two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who turn to robbing banks in an attempt to halt the repossession of their recently deceased mother’s ranch. As they journey through the plains of West Texas hitting the different branches of a local, mostly incompetent, bank chain they interact with other cowpokes and ranch hands whose livelihood is comparably gone. There’s such a downtrodden, melancholy tone not often teamed with the genre of crime/thriller. Mackenzie contrasts the beauty of the once idolized open range with the harsh reality as it is now a bankrupt territory with little benefit beyond the scattered pumpjacks on the horizon.
Don’t let the somber tone scare you, there’s still lot of action inherent with any crime story especially in a state so ubiquitous with guns. There are car chases and shootouts which keep up the pace so it’s not just a collection of long takes of empty highway with “Get Out Of Debt” signs. The boys are pursued by soon-to-be retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Alberto is also notably half Native American, half Mexican which the heavily white Texan Hamilton rags on. Race, specifically the Comanche population, plays a large part in the thematic elements. The discord between Native Americans and whites is a seamless allegory for the contention between property owners and the banks. The film’s biggest draw back is that it tends to overstate that premise. It’s one of those instances you wish the film trusted the intelligence of its audience rather than have Alberto spell it out. Hamilton is this beckon of justice as everyone around him is motivated by money as it has become so scarce but is also an antagonist to his so-called friend. Considering he’s the most middle class person we meet, he’s an embodiment of privilege, having the power to talk down to his partner and giving him the arrogance to believe he can outsmart these low class, hick robbers. As much as he tries, he can’t completely immerse himself in the mindset of the poor. To his detriment, he thinks he’s better than most of the small town folk which is a unique character flaw for the Ranger. Bridges still makes him likable because of course he’s got that “Dude” charm but he does leave a sour taste at times.
This is a doomed-to-fail plot from the start as even when the boys are on the up, feeling the high of the heist, there’s enough sobriety to understand what they’re doing is wrong but that maybe the ends justify the means. Toby (Pine) is in it for his family, willing to die to better his sons’ future. Tanner (Foster) sees no way out of this armpit of the south and is content going out in a blaze of glory. It’s refreshing to see the conscious of these outlaws even if Tanner is a little riskier with his tactics and respect for life. They’re already living with regret once it’s started. We’re dropped in mid-plan, the film opening with an early morning robbery and from that point on, there’s no turning back and from the constant look of anxiety on Toby’s face, it’s only going to get worse. The biggest stakes come from deciding whose side your on which is difficult when no one is blameless except for maybe Alberto who I’m fine with being the most unblemished. Every character, no matter how small is likable, often with folksy charm while toting a pistol. This is partially do to the utterly fantastic performances supplying complex pathos in every situation but also Taylor Sheridan’s script which is so in tune with the terrain. There’s definite first hand knowledge of theses one horse towns because by the end you feel entangled with the struggle and the changing times.
The film posits “we our lords of nothing” as this land and it’s inhabitants have been discarded and forgotten. Fields are burning and no one runs to stop it. It’s all worthless. So maybe not the feel good summer movie you were looking for but as the blockbuster season of excess comes to a close, this is the perfect film to wrap it up. A film that’s both despairing and exciting. It follows in the footsteps of Peckinpah as a more modern death of the West. The end of the way of the cowboy. The horses and blues music is on its way out, replaced by teens with muscle cars and metal. Every town seems to know this and are waiting to die out or continue the sickness of poverty that Toby explains. Mackenzie is completely sympathizing with this society which is now a shell of its former self. The movie is so captivating because it has a profound understanding of its people and surroundings and builds up from that. Quite an enlightening Western and much like 99 Homes before it, it’s on the way to my Top 10.