The Great Depression, The New Deal, World War II, and the post-war affluence in the United States is a narrative of redemption. It’s a tale about breaking away from a downward cycle of economic loss, to one where — through the cauldron of war and sacrifice — Americans were able to attain the comforts of middle class through good jobs and upward mobility.
Then, many Americans rejected those policies and structures of The New Deal for The Reagan Revolution, Neoliberalism (i.e., a throwback to the laissez-faire economics of the 18th and 19th centuries), deindustrialization, wars, terrorism, and a Great Recession — creating an economically and culturally desolate landscape. It is that long shadow of The Reagan Revolution that frames David Mackenzie’s film, “Hell or High Water.” The shell of the story is about two bothers who rob small banks and a Texas Ranger, (Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton) on the cusp of retirement, looking to bring them to justice. The screenplay was written by actor Taylor Sheridan (noted for his role in “Sons of Anarchy” as Deputy Chief David Hale), and it centers on Toby and Tanner who have a plan to amass enough cash to save the family ranch from foreclosure. The plan seems fairly simple until it’s revealed that Toby has grand designs that are more sophisticated than what appears at the outset. The real villains in this tale aren’t an individual or even a gang. Rather, it’s the predatory culture of banks and how they wreck what little economic slice of the pie “the little guy” has left. In other words, it’s the world neoliberalism has wrought. It’s the lie of trick-down economics, the loss of property through reverse mortgages, the vanishing of a middle class way of life that traps people in poverty — and the desperation that comes with it. Against this backdrop, we see why Toby, and to a lesser extent, Tanner risk their lives as bank robbers.
“Hell or High Water” has elements of a western, but instead of “the law” acting as moral bulwark against the anarchy of lawless individuals who bring chaos and destruction to “the good people” of a western outpost, we empathize with the criminals’ path toward a moral redemption — as everything is falling apart around them. As Alberto Parker (Hamilton’s law enforcement partner who barely tolerates Hamilton’s race-baiting jokes) says to Hamilton at one point in the film (and I’m paraphrasing here): “150 years ago, this land belonged to my people. For as far as your eyes can see, it was ours. Then your people came and took it all from us. Destroyed everything we had. Our way of life. Its traditions. Gone. Now the same thing is happening to you. Except instead of an invading army, it’s being done by those sons of bitches right there (he motions toward the bank across the street).” Throughout the film, we’re reminded how much people have been affected by neoliberal financial policies in harmful ways. From a waitress who gets a $200 tip from Toby and refuses to give it up to Hamilton as evidence for fear she won’t be able to pay her mortgage, to a lawyer to who helps Toby and Tanner with their plan to buy back the family ranch because he sees what banks have done to people, to patrons at a diner who won’t help the police in finding Toby, to an Indian casino who ask no questions as money is laundered…it becomes abundantly clear the “good people” know who the bad guys are — and it ain’t the ones robbing banks.
“Hell or High Water” is a taut, but somewhat relaxed thriller that has wonderful performances from all the main actors. Jeff Bridges, who seemingly can’t turn in a bad performance, is powerful as the world-weary Hamilton. So too is Gil Birmingham as the “half Mexican, half Native American” Alberto Parker. Chris Pine pivots nicely away from any traces of James T. Kirk as a quiet, but determined Toby. And Ben Foster as Toby’s brother Tanner is an effective counterpoint to Toby. Tanner is all id. Untamable, unafraid of dying, and only alive when he’s taking from the rich to help his poor brother. In the end, “Hell or High Water” is mostly a story about white men — and the economic birthright they’ve lost. In the rough and tumble of the journey to get it back, they do so, not for themselves, but for their progeny. Only through a calculated roll of the dice, can they break the downward spiral of economic decay that’s mostly affected their generation.