In David Mackenzie’s crime thriller Hell or High Water, two brothers in modern-day west Texas set off on a spree of low-skilled bank robberies, hitting little branch banks in small towns and bypassing the safes to scoop up whatever cash the tellers have on hand. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), a loose cannon just released from prison, has thrown in with his more responsible younger brother, Toby (Chris Pine), to steal $43,000 so they can pay off a lien on their late mother’s ranch. There’s something anachronistic about all this—as one robbery witness notes, we’re long past “the days of robbing banks and living to spend the money.” Hell or High Water feels like something from the depths of the Great Depression, when farm and ranch foreclosures swept over the plains states and popular wrath against the banking industry in Texas and Oklahoma protected such desperadoes as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde.
Hatred of the banks is evident from the first scene, when Toby and Tanner roll up at their first target. A message spray-painted on the building’s back wall, and glimpsed only in a panning shot, reads 3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us. Over the course of the movie, as the brothers cruise down the highway, they pass more than one billboard for debt relief. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) has knit the post-2008 economic resentment into the plot as well. When the mother died, she left the ranch to Toby’s two sons, and now oil has been discovered on the property. But the bank holds a lien on the ranch after paying the mother’s back taxes, and foreclosure is imminent. In a streak of poetic justice, Toby resolves to rob the bank’s branches and repay the bank with its own money. “I been poor my whole life,” he fumes late in the film. “It’s like a disease, passes from generation to generation. . . . But not those boys. Not anymore.”
More subtly, the movie feels like a throwback to the 1930s because so much of it transpires on the road, as Toby and Tanner drive from town to town and a pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), chase after them, trying to guess where they’ll strike next. Scottish director Mackenzie (Starred Up, Mister Foe) has never shot a movie in the American heartland before, and like so many Europeans who come to the U.S., he’s transfixed by the vast, rugged spaces and the pull of the open highway. In the flat, arid country of west Texas the endless ribbons of concrete take on the force of destiny; the brothers are constantly hurtling toward their fate, and sometimes their fate is hurtling toward them from the other direction.
Gun laws are eroding everywhere, but Texas is practically reverting to the Wild West, which reinforces the impression that Hell or High Water takes place in an earlier century. Everyone is packing heat, adding another layer of tension when the brothers burst into bank lobbies with pistols drawn. At their second early-morning stickup, Toby and Tanner subdue a bank teller and her only customer. They ask the patron if he’s carrying a gun. “Of course I’m carrying a gun,” he snaps with Lone Star defiance. Toby takes it off him but stupidly lays it on a counter; no sooner have he and Tanner fled the lobby than a bullet comes crashing through the plate glass at them. Later, at a gas station, Tanner gets into an altercation with a badass in a muscle car who brandishes his pistol for emphasis before Toby comes up from behind and knocks him senseless. When the brothers’ final robbery spins out of control, they burst out of the bank lobby and face gunfire from citizens on the street as they race for their car.
When a filmmaker connects the present to the past, the result can feel like it’s taking place outside of time. Mackenzie tells a story of two outlaws and two lawmen, casually observing their friendly but more often fractious relationships before each partnership terminates. “You’re lucky,” Alberto tells Marcus, who’s scheduled to retire in a few weeks. “You made it through to the end.” That’s the sort of dialogue that sends chills down a movie fan’s spine, though it’s oddly appropriate for a story in which, thanks to the banks, everyone seems to be down on his luck. In Hell or High Water the New Deal is over and the only deal that matters comes out of the card feeder at a casino gaming table. Whether the movie takes place now or in the 1930s hardly matters—the economic forces are as immutable as the landscape. v