August 31, 2016

'Hell or High Water' takes an honest look at poverty and crime in America.

Hell or High Water is a stark and pungent film about two brothers in Central Texas who go on a bank robbing spree, and the two taciturn Texas rangers who doggedly pursue them. Although the film recalls the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men— both take place in Texas, both involve stolen money and the good and bad guys chasing after it, and both take on a generally cool, detached tone, one that matches the austere Texas wilderness—Hell or High Water doesn’t strive for grandiosity as much as No Country does. No Country For Old Men has a monumental cruelty that slaps you in the face. (And I should clarify, I think it’s one of the Coen Brothers’ finest films.) But it’s a relief that Hell or High Water doesn’t aim for such devastating depths: at its core, Hell or High Water is a simple story about a man who cannot obey the law (Ben Foster), and his brother (Chris Pine), whose circumstances draw him into the same volatile world. 

But that’s not to say this movie doesn’t have something to say. The director, David Mackenzie, situates his story in a lonely human wilderness, a vast, sprawling mausoleum of dead towns plagued with poverty like it’s a contagious disease. As Toby and Tanner drive from one job to the next and back to their isolated house, where they bury their beat-up getaway cars in the earth, we see billboards dotting the narrow highways: “Are you in debt?” Mackenzie has social consciousness, and like Bonnie and Clyde, circumstances are meant to melt our hearts toward the criminals. Toby (Pine) wants to save his sons from the chief problem of society: a lack of money. His brother Tanner (Foster) is too far gone (he's already spent time behind bars) to do anything legal. Tanner has a crazy gleam in his eye, as though robbing banks provides the only satisfying scratch to an interminable itch.

That itch haunts Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) too. He’s weeks away from retiring, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Mexican, half-Native American with almost as many years of service under his belt, suspects that Marcus has fixated on the robberies to prolong his career, to stave off the inevitability of sitting on the porch with nothing to do. The itch is a need for purpose. So these two over-the-hill rangers travel to godforsaken little Texas towns and stake out banks, and eat at skeezy little dives where hard, pissed-off waitresses say things like, “I’m hot…and not the good kind.”

Marcus is old school. If it weren’t for his career as a Texas ranger, Marcus would be propped in front of Fox News waiting to cast his vote for Donald Trump. He picks mercilessly at Alberto, employing every Mexican slur and stereotype he can. “I’m half-Indian, too” Alberto responds calmly while in a cheap motel, the TV blaring some televangelist’s glad-handing promises about religion. “I’ll get to those when I run out of Mexican jokes,” Marcus assures him. Their banter—actually it’s mostly just Marcus’s one-sided insults—is supposed to be funny, and it is to a point, although it’s never clear what we’re supposed to be laughing at: the racist jokes themselves, or the stupidity of the racist. Their relationship is predictable: We know they will grow to care about each other despite the jabbering. “When you’re standing over my grave, my insults will be the thing you miss most,” Marcus promises. Amusing, but also a bit too self-conscious, as though Mackenzie and screenwriter Tayler Sheridan were themselves nervous about the racist jabs. 

What lingers in the memory about Hell or High Water, though, is the film’s sly tenderness. These hardened men do have compassion in them, tenderness inexplicable as the act of bleeding water from a stone. And, like The Big Short, this movie wages a sassy, insouciant takedown of the economic inequities that we like to pretend don’t exist. When Toby and Tanner are having lunch at a diner, Toby makes nice with a friendly waitress who’s got a mellifluous Southern drawl and a motherly figure: she’s struggling to make rent, and he leaves her 200 dollars for a tip. When the rangers interrogate her later, she refuses to rat them out or turn over the money. Hell or High Water finds nobility in looking out for yourself. These folks don’t hedge: they know what they need, and they know how to get it. That’s far more admirable than the millionaires on Wall Street, counting their millions like grubby little American Scrooges.

And that's not to say that we're supposed to approve of these men for robbing banks. The movie never gives them a pass. But, like any good crime film, it humanizes the criminals, reminding us that we aren't as far removed from them as we like to think. 

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