Crime capers have been thrilling audiences almost since the silent movie days. Like any genre, they’re eventually driven into the ground like any getaway car. However many get a re-tooling and reinvention, like Heat. Some bring the tried and tested cat and mouse shenanigans while others provide allegories like Killing Them Softly. While Hell or High Water doesn’t present it’s post-recession subtext quite as intentionally, the questions jostle against other worthy themes of loss, family, morality, desperation and sacrifice.
Moments after the film opens in a desolate Texas town, a teller steps out of her car. As she makes her way across the parking lot toward the bank, the wall behind her makes a proclamation in graffiti. Whether it be one of the filmmakers, the characters or both, it’s too much of an indictment to be throwaway: “3 tours in Iraq, but there’s no bail out for people like us”. Moments later we’re introduced to our bank robbing brothers, Toby and Tanner. While the robbery is brutal in it’s matter-of-fact observation, there’s something about that message, emblazoned in bold graffiti, that rings throughout the running time of Hell or High Water. Simply, the story is about the Howard Bros mission to rob branches of the bank looking to foreclose on their, now dead, mother’s farm – which, it also turns out, oil has been discovered. However, under the ski masks of this southern fried tale seems to be a question slithering in the shades of grey: How much of a crime is it to take from nefarious institutions that seem more than happy to take arbitrarily from everyone else?
Thankfully, the question isn’t made too easy to answer. While Toby (Chris Pine) seems to have direction and wits, Tanner (Ben Foster) is the unpredictable ex-con. Never are the boys presented as modern day Robin Hoods. The escalating robberies start with assault and eventually graduate to murder. Thought out their plans may be, but Toby and Tanner are far from experts in the heist field.
Then there’s Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton. Channelling a modicum of Rooster from True Grit, Hamilton is the grizzled Texas Ranger, close to retirement. Yet there’s something of a melancholy twist on the sage lawman we’re used to seeing in these kinds of proceedings. Sage he may be and his constant racially-driven taunts toward his partner teeters on the distasteful, but Bridges brings a tired vulnerability to a character that could easily be as worn out as the towns they pass through.
The film is laden with more juxtaposition. The wide open Texan spaces are shot with a delicate and mournful gaze. The sky often looks like a foreboding canopy over the sun-drenched landscape. The waitress serving the Howards, moments before an impromptu robbery, is reticent to give the Rangers more information than she has to. Charmed by the brothers she may be, but more importantly; she wants to keep the generous $200 tip. The boy’s crusade may be selfless – all the ill-gotten gains are taken from the very bank they'll be paying to stop the foreclosure, in order to set up Toby’s kids for the rest of their lives – but townsfolk are itching to chase down and even open fire on the boys.
There’s certainly a number of subtexts in Hell or High Water. Laments that may have you pondering through the credits. That being said, in it’s endeavours to imbue this crime caper with something that raises it above cops and robbers, there’s the strange absence of heart. Audiences are sophisticated enough to not have to have someone to root for, particularly when a film explores these kinds of concepts, but in the absence of a character to truly associate with the ideas can’t shelter in the peripheries.
3* - High Plains Drifting