“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.
Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.
And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?
Criminals and outlaws though they may be, standard archetypes the Howard brothers are not. Even Ben Foster’s Tanner, the more hardened criminal of the two, receives more than his fair share of humanity as he continues to push the riskier edges of their scheme. As Toby, the more reluctant participant, Chris Pine is nothing short of flooring. While Tanner’s eyes are narrow during their robberies, Toby’s are wide open, taking in the entirety of the scene and scoping out the grander impact of their actions. It makes sense that between their stick-ups, Toby’s glance tends to drift downwards as he avoids eye contact – and, he hopes, responsibility.
Director David Mackenzie’s last outing in the director’s chair, “Starred Up,” featured a break through to the emotional core a troubled young British prison inmate. In “Hell or High Water,” he achieves a similarly remarkable feat piercing the armor of hardened Texan masculinity. He gets to understand Toby more, quickly moving past the scruffy beard Pine grew as well as the deeper voice that he pulls from further back in his throat. What we see is a personified embodiment of a growing, often unspoken, fear among today’s American men – that they will not be able to provide a better life for their children.
But it’s not just the main characters who receive this kind of attention and compassion. Everyone in “Hell or High Water” has a story because no one has been spared by these macro market forces. Waitresses, bank clerks and bank customers alike all have their own reactions to the Howards’ rampage. Sheridan understands that these responses are conditioned by everything in their lives before their big moment on screen, and he cares enough about these people to take such factors into consideration.
Coupled with his killer sense of the ironies that time and chance have in store for us all, Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” transcends its location and genre trappings. It’s a key text about the hollowing out of the American heartland and what such losses mean for us all. A- /