Hell or High Water came out last summer. It ran only briefly in one local theater, so I finally caught it on iTunes yesterday. I’d planed to see it since reading an editorial that claimed Hell or High Water captured the mood of the country – at least the country between the coasts – better than any of the volumes of election year analyses.
Watching it, I remembered another great movie of hard times, Tender Mercies, 1983, but that was a film of redemption. There’s no redemption in Hell or High Water, just dry laughter at desperate measures aimed at overcoming desperate circumstance. “There’ll be no peace,” Jeff Bridges tells Pine in the closing scene. “This will haunt you all the rest of your days. And me too.”
Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), a divorced father, and Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-convict, begin robbing branches of the Texas Midland Bank. Their mother died owing the bank $32,000 and back taxes after taking out a reverse-mortgage to save her failing cattle ranch. When oil is discovered on the land, the bank issues a foreclosure notice. Toby and Tanner set out to steal money from the bank to redeem the mortgage it holds.
The robberies are too small to interest the FBI, so Texas Rangers, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to the case. On the trail of the brothers, Alberto tells Marcus, “A hundred and fifty years ago, your great grandparents stole this country from my people. Now the banks are stealing it from you.”
Alberto’s ambivalence is mirrored by other people the rangers and the brothers encounter on their way to the inevitable showdown. Toby leaves a cafe waitress a $200 tip with stolen money. When the rangers arrive and demand the bills to check for fingerprints, the waitress says, “Get a damn warrant. This is half of a month’s mortgage. All I care about is keeping a roof over my daughter’s head.”
This is a country where hope for anything more than survival is missing. Thirty years ago, Tender Mercies showed Robert Duvall’s redemption from alchohol through the power of love and faith. In Hell or High Water, the only love is fast sex after a winning night at an Indian casino. The only reference to faith is Bridges’ comments on a TV evangelist – “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.”
Hell or High Water is not a depressing movie; it’s a sad movie. There’s a difference. The lonesome beauty of the land mirrors the towns that are falling apart, while the soundtrack, with songs from artists like Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wiley Hubbard, echoes the mood. Bridges’ world weary humor, and the brothers’ awareness of the irony of robbing the bank to pay the bank give us humor and moments of laughter even as a darker story unfolds.
Movies set in rural Texas have long depicted dying towns and troubled times. Think of The Last Picture Show, 1971, or No Country for Old Men, 2007. This one is filled with more topical references than any of the others. In one scene, the rangers stop as a couple of cowboys drive a small herd of cattle across the blacktop, fleeing a prairie fire that paints the sky an ugly black behind them. “It’s the 21st century,” one of the cowboys tells Bridges, “No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”
I’m not sure a single a single political pundit has captured as accurately the reasons this country voted the way it did in the recent election. At the same time, there’s a power in this movie I think will endure beyond any socio-economic circumstance. As Jeff Bridges character puts it, I think it will haunt the viewer for a long time.