Hell or High Water is a beautifully paced, wonderfully acted heist thriller, which also manages to feel like the most profoundly American movie I’ve seen in awhile. This, despite the fact that its director is British. I’m tempted to suggest to you that this is the one movie, more than anything else out there, that explains the mindset of Donald Trump supporters. Then I thought about it some more, and realized that that’s exactly true, though not perhaps as the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, and director, David McKenzie, intended.
Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard are west Texas brothers, blue collar guys with backgrounds in drilling, ranching, and, in Tanner’s case, criminality. Over the course of several bank robberies they pull, we learn something of their backgrounds. Over the previous ten years or so, Tanner’s been in prison for armed robbery. Toby’s taken care of their mother. She has now died, and she left the ranch to Toby, disowning black sheep Tanner. Before she died, she took out a reverse mortgage from a local bank. Toby also learned that there’s oil on the ranch, a lot of it. He owes the bank $45,000, which he believes he has no way of paying back. He’s turned to older brother Tanner, and the two decide to rob banks, though only the Midlands’ Bank who, they believe, tormented their mother during her final days. So it’s kind of a revenge thing, too. Toby has formed a family trust, and intends to leave the ranch (and oil money) to his two sons. (When he tells his ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) about the trust, her response is to sigh deeply, and complain ‘one more thing I gotta take care of.’)
Both leading characters are superbly rendered, both by Sheridan’s screenplay and by the two terrific actors. Tanner’s more violent, more impulsive, more ranbunctious; nowhere near as good looking as his brother, but much more successful with women. Toby’s quieter, and smarter. The plans are his, and he’s allowed for essentially all contingencies, he thinks.
Meanwhile, a Texas lawman, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), is on their trail. He’s partnered up with Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who is half-Native American, half Mexican, and completely American. Theirs is a fraught relationship. Hamilton cannot refrain from dropping insulting, meant-to-be-funny, politically incorrect Injun lines at Parker’s expense, and we can tell that Parker doesn’t like it. That’s Hamilton–crude, rude, aggravating, and incredibly good at his job. He’s a couple of weeks from retirement, and loathes the very idea. He has no idea how he’ll fill his hours, which makes him all the more determined to solve this one last case.
So that’s the movie. Toby and Tanner robbing banks, Hamilton and Parker trying to catch them. (Is it accidental that Parker has the same last name as Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame?). But describing it so baldly kind of misses the point of it. It’s about rural, small-town America, where there are almost no jobs and very little hope. Parker’s convinced that the robbers they’re chasing are ‘tweakers.’ But Hamilton doesn’t believe it. The robberies are too meticulously planned for that; meth addicts are too addled to pull off these plans.
But what I loved about this movie is the way it takes its time, not just rounding and complicating its characters, but capturing the way time moves along in these hopeless little places. The way it sours people. At one point, Toby describes poverty as a disease, and we take his point; nobody seems entirely well.
There’s a wonderful scene in a cafe that captures what I’m suggesting. Hamilton and Parker stop to eat, and are informed by their waitress (Margaret Bowman), who is very elderly, that the only thing she wants to know is what they don’t want. They serve T-bone steaks, with baked potatoes. Period. The only question is, do they want that with green beans or corn on the cob? Parker asks if he can have his steak well done, and is informed that their steaks are served medium rare, period. Bowman gives a wonderful, crotchety performance, and that scene captures the time and place as little else could.
I love the little details. A young woman, lying on the floor as instructed during one robbery, texts someone–‘the bank’s being robbed–and next thing we see in front of the bank are a half dozen pickups and guys with rifles. An old-timer is asked by Toby if he’s carrying a gun, and he looks astonished and aggravated and responds ‘of course I’ve got a gun!’ I’m not saying it’s a movie filled with woe-is-me monologues, but the hopelessness of poverty is stitched into the fabric of the film.
And the music. There’s a lot of music in this film, and it’s used perfectly. It’s what I would call ‘outlaw country,’ with modern singer/songwriters like Chris Singleton and Colter Wall and Scott Biram, and with several songs by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (I especially loved Singleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” which I didn’t know). And, of course, one song by the granddaddy of outlaw country, the great Waylon Jennings (“You Ask Me To,” of course. Perfect choice.)
So, it’s a lovely movie, my favorite movie of the year by far. Two thirds in, I honestly did not know how things would turn out. Would Toby and Tanner get away, would their plan work? Would Hamilton catch them? Would they go down, guns ablazin’, in a Bonnie and Clyde ambush and firestorm? I did not predict what actually happened, and yet the ending was also completely plausible and satisfying. Surprising, and also inevitable.
And then I thought some more. A lot of critics have called this a movie that ‘helps explain Trump,’ and I agree. That’s true. But then I thought some more about their situation. Mom took out a reverse mortgage, which they have to pay back. It’s forty-five thousand dollars, which they don’t have. But there is oil on the ranch. What are their choices? Well, let’s see. They know that the oil on their land will pay around $50,000 a month.They could get an oil company to pay them for the oil rights, cash payment, maybe ask for, conservative estimate, six or eight million. Or, they could go to the bank, ask for a loan extension, or a refi, or another loan. Let’s suppose that this greedy, evil bank refuses; they want to foreclose on the ranch, so they can get their filthy hands on that oil. Well, there are other banks in the world. You think maybe you could use the oil strike as collateral, borrow fifty thousand from some other bank?
The point is to have a fortune to leave Toby’s kids. If they get caught robbing banks, the evil bankers will foreclose. They could get shot–they live, after all, in west Texas, where essentially everyone’s armed (a point the movie keeps making). Robbing banks to pay off the loan is the stupidest of their many many options. And as far as the movie is concerned, they never consider anything else.
I don’t know if this is deliberate. But again, look at this as a ‘movie-that-explains-Trump.’ Trump supporters tend to be blue collar, uneducated, rural, and white. Communities like the ones depicted in this movie are struggling. The problems the movie weaves into its story are genuine and real. And here’s my point; the solution they seem to arrived at–vote for Donald Trump–is the worst idea they could possibly come up with. That’s the one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed not to work.
Without getting into the specifics of Trump’s policies, he has proposed exactly nothing to help out rural blue-collar communities. He has proposed exactly zilch to help poor people, or to help those communities dig themselves out. His tax plan would be a boon for rich guys–it would do zippity-doo-dah for the Tobys and Tanners of the world. His business track record is of a guy who rips blue-collar folks off, not someone who helps them.
Robbing banks to pay off a mortgage is a really really bad idea. This is an exceptionally good movie that takes that bad idea to its logical extreme. I don’t know if that makes it, on reflection, better or worse than I originally thought. I do know that I’m really glad I saw it.