(contains minor spoilers)
It is so obvious from Hell or High Water that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a Texan native that I haven’t even Googled it. The dialogue, hyper-masculinity, derisory sense of humour and 2nd amendment fetishism of this Wild West Road Movie all scream a lifetime’s research in the Lone Star State.
Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) & Tanner (Ben Foster), are robbing small town banks for small bills with nothing but pistols and balaclavas and a “shitty” getaway car. The money, for Toby, is for a family emergency and strictly business, yet Tanner is fresh out of jail and enjoys the thrill of the heist. The film then evolves into a double buddy-movie retiring detective Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Native American Alberto (Gil Birmingham) bickering like an old odd-couple as they follow the brothers’ tracks.
Anyone who was ever travelled around Texas or the American South will instantly recognize the small towns of the Southern heartland – They are littered across the landscape from Arizona to Georgia. Rows of wooden houses with porches, a handful of carnivorous barbecue restaraunts, a motel, a gun shop, a hardware store and, of course, a small town bank (with no security). Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens does an amazing job of capturing the debilitating heat of northern Texas, with the haze and dust surrounds the brothers as they speed from bank to bank.
The film also captures beautifully the fervent reverence Texans have with the 2nd amendment and its ability to solve problems. A number of times during the bank raids, it is the fury (and armament) of the customers that cause more problems than the ensuing police – not enough films explore the collective fantasy of small town vigilantism. Having said that, the firepower unleashed in the final scenes certainly prove that the American Police are armed to the bloody teeth.
As has been the case with a hug proportion of Indie films since 2008/9, (see: The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lost River, Out of the Furnace from this blog alone) the real villain here is the banks and their predatory lenders. Although our sympathies change over time concerning the brothers as their characters develop, it is the greedy bankers that propel the narrative into action. (To see how strong this narrative trope has taken hold, try if you will to even imagine a banker character hero in the last decade of film – not anti-hero; just hero)
Hell or High Water is a film about small crime in small towns but with big consequences. Whereas David Mackenzie’s last brilliant film Starred Up confined its father and son characters to a claustrophobic jail, this is about brothers on the open road – albeit stuck in a tragic direction…