Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water (a short study)
2016 ‧ Crime/Drama film ‧ 1h 42m ‧ dir. David Mackenzie
The Dangers of Guns and Familial Love - Charlotte Haley (FR)
Determined to break from the cycle of poverty he finds himself trapped in for the sake of his sons and their family ranch, divorcee Toby Howard (Chris Pine) joins his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), in robbing a series of banks across Texas. Following their pilgrimage of crime is soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), both hoping to wrap the case up before Marcus leaves the force. With moving performances from the main cast, spectacular cinematography by Giles Nuttgens - who really makes the most of the vast Texan landscapes - and a great soundtrack (mostly Nick Cave’s genius), this is certainly a contender for my film of the year.
The starkest theme in Hell or High Water is the futile search for the illusive ‘American Dream’, as it is so often in works of American fiction. Yet, this film’s handling of the topic plays with several facets that creates a far more complex impression of rural societies in the Deep South. Here, America is shown to be awash with criminality, symbolised by the ex-con Tanner; honest men are either turned to criminals, or forced to submit to a system of immoral banking that ensures they wallow in the lowest quality of life. The American Dream is a distorted idea in modern Texas, and the film plays with notions of incongruity between the past and the future of man’s economic stability. Toby Howard’s quest for wealth is focused on both his mother’s legacy (the ranch) and his sons’ economic security. The past and the future drive Toby to commit robberies, but his own financial situation in the present is never a concern, as it would be with usual usage of the American Dream trope. We see this in the final scene, where Toby reveals that he is working on the ranch in the hope that it is a better home for his ex-wife and their children, while he stays in a smaller residence in town. The poverty that permeated the brothers’ youth is Toby’s driving force for robbing the banks that crippled his mother financially, making for an emotive portrayal of an embittered man turning violently against the system that has oppressed him.
The relationship between the brothers is fascinating, and mirrored heavily by the law enforcement duo, Marcus and Alberto, who flank them on their tour of robberies. After the first robbery, a scene at the ranch provides the emotional backdrop to the tense moments in the Texas Midlands Bank, where the masked robbers, revealed later to be the Howard brothers, seemed to have no chemistry. In fact, every robbery shows the psychological distance between Toby and Tanner: while the latter finds joy in heckling and taunting the bank patrons, Chris Pine’s Toby appears increasingly uncomfortable with their actions. But it is at the ranch that we see their shared experience played out in the commemoration of their dead mother. Brilliantly, though both brothers often occupy one half of the screen, given equal billing, Toby is mostly placed in the background, showing his inexperience and feelings of discomfort with robbery - that is until the scene at the ranch, specifically in the bedroom of their late mother. One gets the impression that Tanner, examining his mother’s bed in the distance while Toby looks mournfully on in the foreground, has been pushed out of the domestic life that Toby was bound to by his mother’s illness. The brothers inhabit different spheres; one in the world of violence and corruption, the other in a family setting, serving those around him. This is reinforced at the end of the film: while Tanner is killed in a police shoot-out, with explosions and gore, Toby is seen protecting his land and family from the prying eye of the law, symbolised by Marcus. These spheres collide in situations such as the conversations in the mother’s bedroom, and the confrontation at the gas station that truly brings out Toby’s violent streak. The brothers’ psychological connection is sparsely shown to us by the writer, Taylor Sheridan, but it is instantly recognisable at the most crucial scenes.
Yet, Marcus and Alberto provide their own example of fraternal conflict and harmony, and it is interesting to note that the men in both pairings appear weakest when viewed without their other half. Marcus, the butt of jokes about his age and clearly concerned about the end of his working life, appears in two states - the frail old man dealing with the oncoming loneliness of retirement, and the strong outpost of Texan values, with a sharp tongue and a no-nonsense attitude. His relationship with Alberto, a character of Native American-Mexican heritage, is shown to be a friendship tinged with consciousness of the South’s racist history. Seemingly innocent racial jibes suggest a much darker dynamic that is revealed by Tanner’s almost-explosive encounter with a Native-American man in a casino. Bridging this racial divide is the shoot-out scene, where Alberto, attempting to kill Tanner as he sprays bullets at a squadron of police officers, is shot in the head. Marcus’ reaction is subtle enough to maintain the Stoic Texan persona he embodies, yet woven with rage and sadness that reveals the frail old man within - Jeff Bridges executes this careful mixture perfectly. We see two men, bereft of race, encompassed solely by their uniforms that ties them in camaraderie; the film presents parallel stories of brotherhood that show an alternative way of life to the racially divided, economically uneven community within which the narrative is set.
With the backdrop of oilfields and casinos, there’s lots that could be said for the film’s use of industrialisation and debauchery, symbolising the nefarious capitalism that has forced the Howard brothers into criminal activity. There is also a sense of injustice running through the film, not just at the brothers’ unfortunate poverty, but at the bleakness of the very land itself, and at the death - or ageing - of good men, like Alberto and Marcus, who may have been able to salvage what seems like a crumbling hotchpotch of rural communities. Hell or High Water is a story of obsession with a delusional and violently masculine culture, bent on preserving familial pride and American values, even though those values are the very things that come to destroy the characters themselves.
By Charlotte Haley - 2016 Film Representative @ FAFF