How does the land we stand on define us? Does a place’s history and inheritance have bearing on its presence? Are some patterns that play out through time beyond our control to evade? David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water asks these questions and many more. It’s a stunningly visceral film filled with beautiful images of the West Texas plains, a perfect soundtrack of rugged ballads (including a perfectly placed “Dollar Bill Blues” by Texas’ own Townes Van Zandt), great performances by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, and many questions regarding our connection to the land we inherit, or steal.
Toby Howard (Pine) is in desperate need of cash, and so he and his maniacal brother Tanner (Foster) start robbing small town branches of Texas Midlands Bank for all their unmarked bills. Old policeman Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner follow their every step, searching for patterns in their crimes. We expect things will not go to plan, resulting in the firing of many large guns. At a core level, we’re looking at a simple story of criminals evading the law enforcement hot at their heels.
But don’t let the simple story convince you this is a simple film. Like No Country for Old Men, to which this film has drawn many comparisons, Hell or High Water uses these classic Western tropes in service of a tale of much deeper meaning. Still, as similar as the two films may be, their tones differ dramatically. Hell or High Water is not interested in the Biblical considerations of good vs. evil that so fascinated the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner; it’s interested in studying how specific, unwanted changes have affected specific people in this specific region. This film is about the land, the West Texas plains, that has figured so prominently into our nation’s Hollywood mythology.
Neither Mackenzie nor screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is interested in telling us too directly what this film is truly about. They subtly posit connections between the film’s events and the Iraq War, West Texas’ richness of oil, the housing market crash, and the banks that have most profited. The local Texans bemoan the power of Texas Midlands Bank; one man at a diner appears to enjoy hearing that these two criminals are “robbing the place that’s been robbing me for years.” There’s the sense that these locals see the banks as the true criminals, the greedy business men who have stolen the sacred land from the locals, forcing landowners to put the land into trusts managed by the bank—or, if they get screwed by the collapse, giving the banks the land outright to pay what debts have accumulated, even if the land is endlessly rich with oil.
But Mackenzie and Sheridan do not stop there. As the locals enemies the banks, so the descendants of the region’s Comanche Native Americans villainize the locals, the offspring of those who stormed in centuries back with the law on their side and forced the tribes out of land rightfully their own. As a Comanche Native says to Tanner at a casino: “You know what Comanche means? It means everyone is enemy.”
We’re looking, then, at multiple generations of conflict over this sweeping land that Mackenzie lovingly reveals with some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in some time. The bloodshed depicted comes as a direct result of these patterns of West Texas history—greed, bitterness, and conflicting opinions on what’s rightfully ones own. Yet this complex consideration of the region and its layered mythos would not be complete without the presence of the “outlaw,” the renegade drifter who walks outside the law according to a code of his own. Here, it’s Tanner. He’s a madman, waiting for any opportunity to sling a gun, fearful of no law or consequence. But Tanner is more than the stereotypical outlaw. He’s a man who cares for his younger brother and truly wants to help him out of the debacle he’s in. It’s this elevation beyond the familiar archetypes that showcases Mackenzie’s compassion for his material.
This film could not have taken place in California or Minnesota or New York. It requires Texas to make sense. While it certainly cares for its characters, it remains in the end about the rugged land of West Texas, positing that the land itself, through forces we cannot know, has yielded these patterns of conflict and bloodshed. What is the land’s fate, the film asks, when the rising generation no longer respects its inheritance or cares for its necessities? Will it remain in control of the banks to be ravaged for oil to grant more money to those who took it from these humble, traditional families? Or will a new conflict ultimately arise as bitterness toward the banks and unwavering respect for tradition supersede a willingness to let the tides of capitalist change take hold? This film, I’m nearly certain, would remove its hat for the latter.
— Sean Lawlor