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Film Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016; Directed by David Mackenzie)

West Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob banks. Not for the thrill (well, that’s part of the appeal for the wilder ex-con Tanner) and not without a very specific, well-planned, indeed ingenious strategy. They hit only small-town branches of a single regional bank chain, only early in the morning to avoid midday crowds of customers (which in West Texas are more likely than not to be concealed-carrying firearms that they are not shy of using against criminals), and take only ready cash from the teller drawers, not the ink-marked traceable bills in the safes. They carefully bury their getaway car in prepared pits on the remote family ranch after each robbery. They launder the money through a Native American-owned casino in Oklahoma, departing its premises with a check made out to the same bank they’ve just stolen from. They are after a specific amount of money, it seems, and with a specific purpose.

Tanner’s penchant for reckless criminal behaviour creates risky deviations from the plan, as unforeseen circumstances do likewise. But the Howard boys’ spree manifests as a targetted frontier-justice scheme to secure their family’s land and future against the grasping, unfeeling greed of the financial system that Hell or High Water understands to be reducing wide swaths of American society to poverty-stricken rubble. The Texas Rangers pursuing the Howards, the canny, soon-to-retire Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, fully immersed in the crusty, wry style of his later career) and his biracial partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), discuss this system of legal, controlled plunder while staking out a rural bank branch that they predict will be their quarry’s next target. The Latino/Indian Parker openly and cynically compares contemporary capitalism’s consolidation of independent citizens’ financial means and property ownership to the imperialistic westward sweep of manifest destiny that stripped land and the political rights derived from its holding from Mexican and Native peoples alike.

Though the Rangers aren’t yet aware of it, the brothers they are chasing are carrying on a valiant outlaw resistance to this unjust system that law enforcement is sworn to uphold. Hell or High Water casts Toby and Tanner as Red State Robin Hoods with the vast near-empty plains of West Texas as their Sherwood Forest, their principled stand inherently futile whether or not it is a success. If their motives are more self-interested and focused than the mythic greenwood hero, then the bruised romanticism of their quest for socioeconomic levelling is ambiguously stained at the edges with dried blood. The brash, violent Tanner (pure, barely-checked Ben Foster id personified), ruled by his desires and his impulses like the classic American archetype, calls himself “Lord of the Plains” in a flash of fatalistic hubris during his suicidal closing armed standoff with police, but it’s a term he appropriates from the Comanche, much as his white Americans forefathers appropriated the tribe’s land. A Comanche he plays poker against at the Oklahoma casino retorts that where once they were Lords of the Plains, now they are Lords of Nothing. The Howards rage against the dying of that particular light. They choose a righteous heist caper over a hillbilly elegy, a brilliant smash-and-grab against the money men rather than a parched final ride into the sunset.

Directed by David Mackenzie, a Scot, and written by former actor Taylor Sheridan (the script earned him his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in three years), Hell or High Water combines the latter’s insider’s ear for language, context and setting with the former’s more unfamiliar position, which allows for an outsider’s more trenchant critical eye. As often as Mackenzie allows his camera to aestheticize the stripped-down dusty towns and ruggedly vast vistas of West Texas, he also directs his moving-vehicle panoramas (those visual mainstays of the rural U.S. film) at billboards for debt consolidation and payday loans. The tentacles of cash-ravenous capitalism stretch into the remotest outposts in the landscape.

The very first shot of Hell or High Water further emphasizes this socio-political angle of American finance intertwined with imperialism: it pans past scrawled graffiti on a bank building’s blank white outer wall that reads, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailouts for people like us”. Toby and Tanner obtain just such a bailout for their family by force, but it merely exploits and piggybacks on the existing system rather than dealing it any sort of damaging blow. They con the thieves in three-piece suits, but in the end, the thieves benefit from the con as well. Totter though it might, capitalism’s flexible ability to incorporate and even incentivize resistance to it while enfolding the profits from that resistance beneath its larger aegis is testament to its stubborn and not wholly positive endurance. Hell or High Water‘s scenario does well to recognize this alongside its more direct critiques of the system.

Hell or High Water was released mere months before Donald Trump cynically, exploitatively mustered just enough of this well-nursed sense of white rural and suburban resentment of neoliberal globalist capital and perceived cultural elitism to put himself in the White House, whereupon he proceeded to sycophantically serve the monied interests he pledged to undermine (without forgetting, as he never does, to serve himself first) at the expense of the voters whose wishes he promised to fulfill. Throughout the presidential campaign as well as after in its disheartening aftermath, the debate has raged concerning this Trumpian appeal, about where exactly its core of economic anxiety ended and its xenophobic bigotry began. Hell or High Water gives voice to the former concern rather than the latter, although Hamilton’s politically-incorrect ribbing of Parker’s “mongrel race” suggests underlying prejudice, despite being played predominantly for laughs (and Hamilton’s jibes dry up in the face of Parker’s aforementioned withering assessment of imperialistic capitalism). The film is a realist fantasy of adapted cowboy-movie anti-finance rebellion whose thematic diagnoses of the contemporary American disease are more compelling than its brazen but limited caper-flick cure.

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