Reel Talk

Hell or High Water: How the Banks Killed the West



I’ve said before on this site that the film genre I probably have the least amount of familiarity with is the Western. And it’s something that I’ve been trying to fix. I really love the aesthetic, I just haven’t had a lot of experience with the actual movies. And since I’ve inflicted the ridiculous goal upon myself to see 366 movies I haven’t seen before this year, I’ve been trying to make up for that. And it’s gone pretty well. I’ve seen a lot of classic Westerns, and I’ve really begun to see the real appeal of the genre. But one thing that I’ve noticed that’s a little strange is the fixation on the time period of the Wild West. This may seem stupid, but I think it’s a real shame that we don’t really take the themes of the Western and try to either transpose it to a different time period or location. There a couple movies, like No Country for Old Men, which does this really well, but by and large it’s not just done. It’s kind of like how typically Fantasy is relegated to wizards and goblins and whatnot. So I’m always on the lookout for a Western that doesn’t fall in line with genre conventions. And I’ve found a hell of an example of that.

Hell or High Water is a fascinating little movie from Scottish director David Mackenzie that I got to check out in a sneak peak the other day, and it’s really great. The story is pretty simple, and primarily revolves around two duos. First we have Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), two brothers in West Texas who have decided to start robbing different branches on a bank. And the other is two Texas Rangers, the grizzled old Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his longsuffering partner Alberto (Gil Burmingham). Tanner has recently been released from jail for previous bank robbery, and Toby is the more straight-laced one, who stayed at home with their dying mother on their crappy ranch, letting his marriage fall apart. But when they find oil on the ranch, he decides to start robbing the banks that own the mortgage on the ranch so they can pay it back with the banks own money, and get the ranch back so they can exploit it for the oil so his kids can be set for life.

And that’s basically what the movie is about. We alternate between the brothers and the Rangers, who are hot on their trail. This is going to be Marcus’ last case, and he’s making the most of it, getting all his best insults toward Albeto out of the way, and dragging his feet to make his glory last as long as possible. Meanwhile we see the quiet and kind Toby violating almost all of his principles while trying to keep the wild and vindictive Tanner in line. But that obviously doesn’t last, because after one of the robberies goes wrong and Tanner has to kill several people, they get chased out of town by a bunch of gun-toting Texans, and are on the run. Marcus and Alberto hear about the chase, and join in too, while Tanner is able to get Toby out of danger, and headed in the opposite direction as he leads the police farther into the middle of nowhere to make his last stand. And in the end, Toby basically wins. He’s able to buy back the ranch, gets the oil company in, gets a boatload of money, gives it all to his wife and kids, and is ready to live his life full of guilt for the crimes he’s committed. And the movie ends with that pleasant lack of resolution, with Toby and Marcus chatting about how they both know what really happened, and both of them kind of wishing that the encounter lead to their deaths, but letting it go so just keep living their broken lives.


I really dug this movie. It was shot in a very interesting way, with a lot of longing and loving shots of both the desolate beauty of West Texas, and the dilapidated ruins of the small towns that populate it. Plus some original music from Nick Cave is always going to make your bleak neo-Western more interesting, and really helped with the mood. But the real draws of this film were the performances. Everyone’s chemistry was great, and the two central relationships at the center of the movie were incredibly believable. Pine and Foster made a great pair of brothers who were clearly not that close. It’s well established that Tanner has been in jail most of his life, so he clearly doesn’t really know Toby all that well, but their brotherly love/duty keeps them together, through the thick of things. They pick on each other, yell at each other, and laugh with each other, just like real brothers would. They have highs and lows, but in the end they have a bond that can’t be broken, and Tanner doesn’t think twice about giving his life to save Toby and their mission. And then there’s the two Rangers. I’m beyond glad that we’re still in Jeff Bridge’s “grizzled cow-poke” phase of his career, and he doesn’t it great. But the real draw here is how he bounces off Gil Birmingham’s Alberto. Marcus treats Alberto a bit like a little brother as well, constantly picking on him, making fun of his mixed race heritage, and just generally belittling his police work. But it become abundantly clear that Marcus really appreciates Alberto and would be lost without him, and he seems to be one of the major factors that’s making Marcus fear his retirement, fearing that what he thinks is good-natured ribbing has actually caused a divide between the two.

But as great as the performances and technical aspects of the film was, I think the thing that most moved me was the central themes of the film. There’s a lot to this movie, like brotherly love, and how we can destroy our futures to save the futures of our children, but there’s a main thing that really struck me about this movie. The role of banks in the West. It’s not a particularly unique perspective, I mean that’s basically what the Grapes of Wrath is about. But it really worked for this story. The central idea of them using the bank’s money to pay back the bank is pretty great, but throughout the movie they really hammer in the idea that the banks have a long history of screwing over everyone. There’s not a single character, other than the bankers I suppose, who really think that robbing a bank is that bad of a thing. They just didn’t like the murder. The Rangers are constantly talking to Texans who have nothing but bad things to say about the banks. Every small town that the characters visit are ghost-towns, because everyone’s been evicted. And then there’s a great scene between Marcus and Alberto when Alberto pretty perfectly sums the history of Texas up by saying that the Texans stole the land from the Comanche, and the banks are stealing it from the Texans. And that’s kind of the crux of the movie. The movie has a plot that honestly could have worked as a classic Western set in the Old West, but thanks to the devastation that the banks have caused, it takes place in a barren wasteland of modern rural Texas. We talk a lot about the death of the American West, and I feel like this movie really beleives, and it’s probably accurate, that the banks were one of the contributing factors to it’s death. Which isn’t to say that I’m one of those idiots that think that they should do whatever they want on their ranches and shoot government officials who try to take the land that doesn’t belong to them, those people are ridiculous and should be arrested, but it’s an interesting idea to investigate nonetheless. And it all came together to be a hell of a fun, tense, and exciting little heist movie with something on it’s mind.


Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by David Mackenzie, and released by CBS Films, 2016.




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