Hell or High Water is a modern western, a tale of the land and the people shaped by it.
Hell or High Water revels in the old cowboy tropes. Repeatedly over the course of the film’s runtime, eye witnesses liken the outlaw pair at the centre of the story to “cowboys” or “cowpokes.” Set in West Texas, the film unfolds in a world of cowboy hats and rattlesnakes. This is a story about lonely men in the desert, land and self-determination. At one point, a half-Native American half-Mexican character pauses to reflect upon the idea that this is essentially the foundational myth of the frontier playing out again. The actors might change, but the roles remain the same.
Hell or High Water is bitter and cynical reflection on the concept of land and ownership, and the importance that it plays to the American identity. Towards the end of the film, bank robber Toby Howard justifies his actions by reference to generations of struggle; the generations that came before and the generations that will follow, and the land that has either condemned or sustained them. Toby is quite literally building his own future out there on the frontier, his bank robberies motivated by the urge to wrest back his family’s land so he might wrest a profit from it.
Like its lead characters, and like the land that drives them to this desperate course of action, Taylor Sheridan’s script is reserved and restrained. There is an economy to it, a sparseness and a leanness that suits this tale and the people inhabiting it. However, Sheridan’s script implicitly trusts director David Mackenzie, who manages to find a striking beauty and a stunning brutality in this rugged landscape inhabited by these rugged men.
The premise driving Hell or High Water is relatively simple. Toby Howard has been entrusted with the family farm, but is facing a bank that is ready (and eager) to foreclose on the property. Needing to clear forty thousand dollars by the end of the week, Toby hits upon a plan so audacious that it might actually work. Toby plots to rob branches of the bank holding the mortgage on the land, and to pay them back using their own money. To assist him in this daring adventure, Toby enlists his brother Tanner. Toby has the brains, but Tanner has the experience; an ex-con, just out.
Juxtaposed against this narrative is the tale of the Texas Ranger who finds himself chasing down these two hotshot bank robbers. As the thefts are not large enough to attract federal attention, the case falls into the lap of Marcus Hamilton. Hamilton is a grizzly old Texan, fond of “teasing” his partner on ethnic grounds and still believing in good old-fashioned detective work. Hamilton is only a year away from retirement, and finds himself considering what he might do with all that free time. As he concedes, a “blaze of glory” seems almost appealing.
The trappings are all very familiar. Indeed, a large part of the cleverness of Hell or High Water lies in the way that it sets up and teases out the familiar elements. Characters acknowledge the themes and tropes of these sorts of tales in a manner that feels organic and considered. Hell or High Water is free of the self-referential irony that audiences have come to expect from stories trading in well-worn clichés, avoiding the winks and nods that seem to come with the territory. However, it is smart enough (and its characters are smart enough) to recognise the story being told.
“You talk like we’re not going to get away with this,” Toby reflects at one point in the film, weighing out the kind of stark moral calculus that is all but expected in a western tale like this. Tanner responds, “Who do you know who ever got away with anything?” It is a particularly smart moment, in a script packed with smart moments. Sheridan’s dialogue is very delicately balanced, self-aware without being flippant. Characters engage in conversation as something akin to dancing or jousting, words chosen precisely and carefully.
When Hamilton and his partner stop into a restaurant helpfully labelled “T-Bone”, the waitress approaches to take their order. “Well,” she begins. “What don’t you want?” It is a sequence that illuminates the movie’s approach to dialogue as something more than direct and literal exposition, a reminder that dialogue is simply a storytelling tool rather than storytelling itself. It does not exist in isolation, informed by context and delivery. Often, the words employed can mean the opposite of what is actually being conveyed.
Sheridan’s script puts a lot of faith in the movie around it. It relies on the characters delivering the dialogue. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as the tired old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a man with nothing left but a job that he is soon about to lose. Bridges pitches the character perfectly, as a man whose flippancy and teasing serve to distract from his own anxieties. Similarly, Ben Foster and Chris Pine do excellent work as Tanner and Toby Howard. Foster is as reliable and compelling as ever, but Pine is tasked with doing more with less as the restrained younger brother.
However, even outside of the three central performances, Hell or High Water benefits from fantastic direction by David Mackenzie, who finds a rugged beauty in this world and its inhabitants. In keeping with the script, there is very little showy about the direction. The most striking aspect of Mackenzie’s work is how graceful it is, from a wonderful opening long take that conveys everything that the audience needs to know while following a staff member from her car to the door of the bank through to the framing of a confrontation at a petrol station.
Mackenzie cultivates a sense of place, casting East Texas as a character in this little drama. Characters travel through montages, the audience invited to view the region out the driver’s window. Sparse land that seems to stretch on forever. Plums of smoke from broken down oil pumps. Fire sweeping across the plains. East Texas doesn’t get dialogue, but it speaks volumes. In particular, Mackenzie reinforces the themes of the film through signs on the side of the road that communicate enough. “Debt?” one asks. “Loans,” another promises. “Sold,” yet another teases.
Hell or High Water is a modern western, which means that its land grabbing is framed in explicitly capitalist terms. Of course, the frontier myth was always inherently capitalist; it was driven by “gold rushes” and “claim-staking.” Land was always a form of capital upon which an individual might plant themselves and grow. Of course, the rugged landscape of East Texas is not the most fertile of ground. Still, the idea was always that the frontier would provide the necessary material for its inhabitants to thrive, the resources upon which they might build.
Hell or High Water is full of familiar western iconography, but with an emphasis on economics. Toby launders his money through a Native American casino. Establishing shots linger on a train stacked full of shipping containers. Bank robberies were always a staple of the genre, but these robberies are filtered through the lens of trusts and mortgages. The bank itself is cast in the role traditionally played by the evil railroad company, only it doesn’t send mortgages but instead “a man who looks like he can foreclose on a house.”
This is the legacy of the frontier, Hell or High Water teasingly suggests. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Tanner likens himself to the Commanche. (“Like the Commanche!” he literally hollers after their first raid.) Of course, Tanner lacks the self-awareness to realise that this is not the best role to play in a western. About half-way through the film, he comes face to face with a real member of the tribe. Tanner acknowledges the “Lords of the Plains.” The Native American corrects him, “Lords of nothing.”
This is the story of the western. East Texas is where cultures go to die, sacrificed before the demands of hostile invaders. For all that Hamilton teases his half-Mexican half-Native American partner, Alberto Parker, the film suggests that they are quite alike. Parker reflects that Hamilton’s ancestors must have been similar, before somebody “broke you down” and “turned you into them.” This time the frontier is not being claimed at the end of musket or beneath a patriotic flag; it falls to deeds of ownership and debts owed on back taxes.
(Parker’s observations are borne out over the course of the film. After all, the movie’s Native American characters have largely been broken down and assimilated into the culture imported by the European settlers. Parker is himself a Texas Ranger, an enforcer of the laws of the state founded by those immigrants. Toby cleans his money at a Native American casino, which is a grotesque cathedral to the capitalist and materialist excesses of those European settlers. The Native American characters that have survived in Hell or High Water have done so by reinventing themselves.)
Reflecting on what it was all about, Toby seems to suggest that the current frontier war is not being fought on grounds of race or ethnicity, but on economic status. “Being poor,” he explains, “is like a disease.” It is generation, passed down from parents to children as a marker until the opportunity presents to squeeze. One observer reflects on the bank’s lending policy of giving Toby’s mother “just enough to keep her poor.” It is a very clever reading on the classic western tropes, shifting pre-existing emphasis to keep it relevant.
Hell or High Water reconfigures the western for the post-recession era. It is still the wild west out there, only driven by balance sheets instead of wagon trains.