Precious few films can claim to be literary in both ambition and execution, yet Hell or High Water manages a combination of text and subtext that would put many authors to shame. It’s that rare film that functions equally well as an example of literal storytelling as it does a deconstruction of its own genre and a social commentary on how that genre relates to modern life. In other words, this is a film with riches in its depths if you are looking for them, but if you just want to watch a great Western, Hell or High Water is sure not to disappoint.
Set in the economically barren wastes of western Texas, two brothers—Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster)—start robbing banks in order to pay off their recently deceased mother’s mortgage. As the brothers rack up more heists, a pair of Texas rangers—Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham)—attempt to unravel their motivations and bring them to justice.
It’s a deceptively simple set-up that allows for the characters to take central focus in the narrative, running two buddy stories side by side until they collide in a tense climax. Foster as the older, more impulsive brother is as charming as he is dangerous, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t manage to build a chemistry with Pine, who until this film has always struck as less of an actor and more of a plank of wood with a handsome face painted on. Pine carries the younger brother’s morally compromised calculation with a nuance that I would love to see more of in future performances.
Equally engaging are Bridges and Birmingham embodying the modern equivalents of the cowboy and Indian archetypes. Bridges as Marcus has to spout casually racist lines that at first seem like their meant to be endearing, but quickly it becomes clear that Alberto, a Comanche, has little patience for stereotypes of his heritage being conflated with his actual identity. Bridges represents the cowboys of a bygone era, where white supremacy was reflected in the heroism of the popular cinema and the modern age is readily calling out that generation on its prejudices. As Bridges’s character gets closer to retirement, his brand of heroism goes by the wayside, causing one to question whether or not he or the bank robbers are actually the heroes of this story.
That’s where the film’s subtext really shines. There are many and constant reminders that the economic desolation of rural Texas is largely due to the manipulative banking practices that led to the housing crisis. This is a world where the law doesn’t serve the common people, so individuals carry concealed weapons and dole out justice themselves under the auspices of self-defense. Though we may be leaving the world of the Western behind when it comes to a social consciousness of race, the West lives on in current economic and political systems where people feel it necessary to protect their interests with the threat of violence. The fact that the film manages to construct a setting that is not only compelling but reflective of modern realities while drawing comparisons to the escapist fantasies of decades past is remarkable in its intricacy and insight.
On the level of nuts and bolts, Hell or High Water is incredibly tense and has some wickedly smart and snappy dialogue: some of it will make you laugh, some of it will leave you to contemplate, but all of it is in service to telling a compelling narrative or shining light on these well-realized characters. More than that, though, it’s a film that uses the conventions of its genre to weave a plot much deeper than its surface implies. Hell or High Water is the Western for the age of economic inequality, where nobody is a hero and everybody is just trying to survive. For being built on the bones of an escapist genre, it sure hits close to home.