Hell or High Water’s greatest success is that it’s a robbery movie about robbery. Okay, that may sound confusing, if not redundant, but basically what I’m getting at is that robbery is all about taking something away from someone, and that is what the movie is about: the nature of taking things and what it’s like to have things taken from you. Maybe I should have started there, and not tried to get so metaphorical. Oh well, it’s done now.
Anyway, the story is set against the backdrop of a recession-stricken town in Texas, or better a series of towns. I mean, the entire state of Texas looks like a place that never had any money, but these places look particularly dry. Many in the towns blame this lack of financial abundance on the banks, a rather relevant villain, and one that never ceases to be villainous. The greed of these banks has driven two brothers, Tanner and Toby (Ben Foster and Chris Pine), to get back at them in the most rebellious of ways: rob multiple locations of the same bank chain, reflow the money via a casino, and then use the money they stole to pay the same bank back so they can’t take Toby’s family ranch. Sounds like something the boys from Big Short would do, but with much more gunplay.
Despite looking miserable in drek like Warcraft, Foster never lost his bite as an engaging, often unpredictable performer. Here he turns in some of his best work as the coyote-like, undeniably charismatic, daunting Tanner. Having just got out of prison, and is now helping his brother with his criminal activities, Tanner is a man with nothing to lose, and who loves reminding the world of it. He’s wiry and dangerous, not afraid to take on men twice his size, being able to stare them down with an intense, cold gaze. He’s a man who’s had everything taken away from him, so he says “fuck it.”
Juxtaposed with him is Toby, played with an outstanding, subdued humility by Pine. Whereas Tanner has nothing to lose Toby has everything to lose. Going against his entire moral code in order to set his family up for life, Toby looks to be in constant conflict with himself. When he’s not robbing banks or taking care of other business with calculated, intelligent confidence, he’s looking down at the ground disengaged with his surroundings—unlike Tanner, who always seems to be looking to the horizon, waiting for his next “moment”.
They move across the state robbing different branches of the same bank, and instead of having to face the constant fear of being caught are portrayed as Bonnie and Clyde figures, who are praised by those who have inklings into what they’re doing. They receive help from a lawyer, who believes their actions are warranted, who then proceeds to help them launder their money so they can “get back at the bastards.” Even a waitress, who receives a $200 tip from Toby, refuses to give it back once she learns from a cop it was stolen money.
Speaking of cops, there can’t be a bank robbery movie without them, and we get two interesting ones named Marcus and Alberto (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). They spend less time getting into gun fights with Tanner and Toby and more time contemplating life. Alberto in particular, who is half-Mexican and half-Native American, gives the most thoughtful antithesis on the whole matter, staring at a bank saying that everything we have now will eventually be taken. What once belonged to his people was taken by Marcus’s people (white folks), and now what they have is being taken by the banks. We live in a circular society of having, losing and taking. To him, chasing down the “bad guys” may even seem pointless, if it were not his duty.
Marcus on the other hand is an intriguing man, as his motivations are in line with overall theme of the movie, but still there seems to be more to him than I could decipher. He is taking life by the horns before it is robbed from him by retirement as he hunts down Tanner and Toby, a path leading to ultimately tragic results. By the end, his actions seem more selfish and destructive than anyone else’s, even though he is considered the “good guy”.
Director David Mackenzie never intended to make a slam-bang Western thriller (even though the bullets do fly by the end in glorious fashion), as the air-tight script from Taylor Sheridan doesn’t lend for one. This is a drama about the nature of what “crime” really stands for today, against the clever backdrop of a crime movie. The movie itself is very hands-on, as it takes you into the thick of the issue by literally taking you into the realm of desperate actions by desperate men. Mackenzie handles Sheridan’s script with assured maturity and understanding, letting the actors bring their characters to life through quiet, but never dull moments, therefore letting the complex themes unfold.
This not a crime story so much as it is a Robin Hood tale set in modern times. What does it mean to truly be a criminal in today’s society and to take something, especially when it’s from modern day crooks like banks? Even today criminals are portrayed as horrible human beings for robbing banks but, as it was during the Great Depression, many ordinary people laud criminals for taking back what banks and corporations stole. As a result, Tanner and Toby are more heroic than criminal. By the end, everyone involved has lost something, and Toby and Marcus find themselves staring eye-to-eye, hinting very nonchalantly that before they both leave this Earth they will take the life of the other. Just like Alberto alluded to: a circular nature of having a taking.