At its core, Hell or High Water is a traditional Western movie featuring cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. The “outlaws” are introduced as wild-eyed, bank-robbing brothers in the vein of Frank and Jesse James. The aw-shucks lawman has a Native American sidekick. There are hayseed banks, land barons, and even an armed posse.
The film’s resonance flows from how director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) repurpose these tropes for a modern setting. The few cowpokes left are a self-loathing, dying breed. Citizens are armed, thanks to concealed carry laws. A Comanche descendant whiles away his days at a casino poker table—"Lord of the plains," one of the robbers derisively says. “Lord of nothing,” the Native American retorts.
The film’s opening shot frames graffiti scrawled on the rear of a branch bank: “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” It’s a desolate West Texas landscape filled with dying towns and littered with billboards announcing business closings and advertising debt relief. Far from the land rush of the late nineteenth century, Hell or High Water is about foreclosures.
At the center is Toby Howard (Chris Pine, never better) and his ex-con older brother, Tanner (Ben Foster, always terrific), who are steamrolling their way through every Texas Midlands bank branch they can find. It’s the same bank that’s scheduled to foreclose on their family’s oil-rich ranch in a week’s time if they can’t pay off the defaulted reverse mortgage their mom took out before she died. Tanner is the brawn, and Toby is the brains. Thus, they only take loose bills, not large denominations likely to be bound with dye packs; they bury their getaway car after each heist; they launder their stolen money through casinos. Once they satisfy the lien, Toby aims to put the farm in a trust for his estranged kids.
On their trail is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, natch), a savvy, crotchety Texas Ranger with a dusty drawl who's a few months away from retiring his badge. Marcus’s partner is Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a part-Mexican, part-Native American Jesus freak who suffers Marcus’s peculiarities and a steady stream of offhand ethnic insults. Marcus’s asides, often used for comic relief in Western movies of yore, strike a more discordant note to contemporary ears. It’s easy, and even partly accurate, to brand Marcus as racist, but the full truth is more complex. Marcus is a product of his time and culture, where such indelicate ribbing was a good-natured defense mechanism.
But this is no country for old men, so when Marcus makes a crack about Alberto’s ancestors living in caves 150 years ago, Alberto reminds Marcus that his ancestors once lived the same way, an ocean removed, and probably had their land stolen, too. The irony, Alberto says, is that just as the government once displaced Native Americans for the sake of white settlers, now, 150 years later, the instruments of government are displacing the grandchildren of those settlers.
That conversation is the eye-opening pivot point for Hell or High Water. Toby and Tanner are now antiheroes, aided by used car dealers who sell them cheap getaway vehicles and witnesses who conveniently can’t remember names or faces. We find ourselves rooting for the outlaws as they race across a gritty but striking New Mexico milieu shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. The soundtrack is steeped in the Texas country stylings of Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings, accompanied by Nick Cave’s hypnotic original score.
Once deadly violence inevitably infects Toby and Tanner’s mission, Mackenzie inverts his final trope. There are no happily ever afters, only a pause until the next act of revenge or money grab. There are no white and black hats in Hell or High Water, only moral shades of gray.