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Review: Hell or High Water

Kevin Taghabon

May 20, 2017

Hell or High Water is a crime drama about the rage simmering below the surface of America's sacrifice zones. The surprisingly class-conscious film is aptly directed by David Mackenzie from Taylor Sheridan's script.

The story follows two brothers in small town West Texas who engage in amateurish bank robberies in an effort to free their family from debt peonage. Sheridan, who received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 2015 for the excellent Sicario, delivers a dialogue-sparse script that is dense with political commentary. This pairs especially well with Chris Pine's (playing Tanner Howard) understated performance and most characters' palpable hatred for banks.

The film opens with preparatory shot for the audience. A dirty white wall displays graffiti reading “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US”. Single story houses with cars three decades old fill the vicinity. The camera pans over to the only modern structure in sight. A Texas Midland Bank branch is soon forcefully liberated of its money by our protagonists, themselves departing in an ancient Camaro.

The parties with resources are the banks and the state, whose law enforcement agents drive brand new Dodges and can snap deploy SWAT teams to the middle of nowhere. Reminders of this disparity are constant. Signs reading “IN DEBT?”, “FAST CASH”, and “BANK OWNED” litter the roads across West Texas. The only wealthy character is an obnoxious gun toting teenager who harasses the brothers from a brand new vomit green Challenger SRT8, a car worth double Tanner's own land. The teen's fake machismo swiftly meets reality.

The brothers Toby (Ben Foster) and Tanner take the stolen cash to casinos in Oklahoma, and get cheques made out to Texas Midlands Bank, effectively robbing them twice. They consciously steal only from tellers' tills, $20 bills and under – the bank's money. A masked Tanner explains to one of the bank patrons, “we ain't stealing from you, we're stealing from the bank.” This choice also makes them untraceable, meaning Tanner is not at risk tipping a kind diner waitress $200. When Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) visit this diner, Marcus demands the tip from the waitress as evidence. “It's my tip, and half my mortgage,” she resists, “so you go out there and you get a warrant and come after the money that I will be using to keep a roof over my daughter's head.”

Marcus and Alberto (who is half Mexican and half Native American) are not unlikable moustache twirling villains either. From the beginning it is clear that Bridges is no fan of eviction profiteers. While interviewing a terrified young bank teller, he looks over to a hefty old man in a clean suit. “Well that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house...Excuse me Mr. Banker?” Marcus later approaches three men in the diner, asking how long they've been there. “Long enough to watch a bank getting robbed that's been robbing me for 30 years,” one of them says. Marcus barely reacts.

This disdain becomes a two way street. “I don't think the bank cares about anything but keeping [Tanner's] trust right where it is. Hell, they were less cooperative than Toby's attorney,” Marcus's office colleague says. Toby's attorney is gleeful that the brothers are stealing the banks money and paying their debts with it, as Texas Midlands' land swiping arrogance he says, “makes my teeth hurt.”

The permanent emergency of poverty grips all those that come across the rangers' and the brothers' travels. A “rattlesnake for a waitress” in an empty restaurant who serves Marcus and Alberto mentions that she has been there for 44 years. In another scene the rangers come across cattle ranchers rushing their herd across the road due to a raging wildfire. “21st century and I'm racing a fire to the river with a herd of cattle,” says one of the embattled herdsmen. “And I wonder why my kids won't do this shit for a living.” Marcus can't bring in any state support. “There's no one to call around here anyway.”

The script is not only an indictment of the foreclosure crisis in the United States and the defeated dream of upward mobility for working class Americans. Racial commentary exists throughout the film. In a tense scene between Toby and a Comanche man in a casino, Toby displays some latent solidarity. “Do you know what Comanche means? It means enemies forever...[with] everyone,” says the man. “Know what that makes me?...a Comanche,” Toby says, to the man's approval. The implication is that their misfortune is delivered by the hands of the same people. Toby knows the face of the oppressors despite his hot-headed nature. “The oil man is the enemy, make no mistake,” he says to his brother.

Meanwhile, Marcus and Alberto's casual racism has them constantly engaging in lopsided bickering about their differences. “This is what they call white man's intuition,” Marcus says when en route to where the robbers are supposed to be. “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle,” Alberto retorts. While Marcus' insults are indeed offensive, it becomes clear that he is lonely and in physical pain as he approaches retirement. Alberto makes up his only friendship.

Fittingly, it is Alberto who succinctly delivers the film's message outside the vacant restaurant with the hostile waitress. Marcus and Alberto sit across from a Texas Midlands branch on the downtown strip of a forgotten town. “150 years ago this was all my ancestors' land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday, 'till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now it's been taken from them. Except it ain't to army doing it. It's those sons of bitches right there,” he points at the bank.

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