The Cultural Allure of Bank Robbers

Hell or High Water frames financial institutions as the enemy of common Americans, but in doing so it speaks to the nation's history.

CBS Films

Banks make really good bad guys. As cinema has shuffled through a lineup of antagonists including Nazis, Russians, clowns, and robots, banks have had remarkable staying power as one of Hollywood’s truly unambiguous forces for evil. The status of financial institutions as villains is backed up by society: people don’t trust them. Even when bankers are the primary characters in movies, as they are in Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street, we watch and await their inevitable schadenfreudian demise.

The mistrust is such that movies featuring banks and bankers as villains can get away with having morally complex antiheroes or straight-up murderous thieves as heroes. Sometimes it’s cool to root for murderers. It’s never been uncool to root against banks.

The anti-bank trope is particularly common in heist films like Spike Lee’s Inside Man and Michael Mann’s Heat, both of which featured likable and even lovable bank-robbing characters. It was already well established by the time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escaped to Bolivia and robbed banks. But in today’s world, where banks have taken a much clearer step into real-life villainy after the Great Recession, films like the new release Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), place them as chief among a constellation of modern anxieties.

The marketing for Hell or High Water has made efforts to link the movie’s themes to the present-day anxieties about the economy that fueled Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign until recently, and—in a different way—Donald Trump’s. The film itself is subtler; not much more happens on-screen than a very straightforward attempt by two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, to knock off the banks that knocked them off. But there’s subtext among its wide, dusty shots of open road, rocky red buttes, and a contemporary western depiction of what Sheridan calls the “modern frontier.” The movie reveals towns taken over and choked by oil, prospectors, and banks; eroding environments; cycles of simmering racial struggles—from the original slaughter of Plains Indians people to new tensions between white residents and Spanish-speaking immigrants—and a depiction of southwestern open-carry gun culture that seems almost like a caricature.

Those threads of societal fears played out similarly in Sheridan’s past film, Sicario, which featured a look into the tangled web of corruption, violence, and racial issues on the Mexican border. In Sicario, a kind of brutality that we like to think belongs to the past or to other places is regurgitated on people on either side of border, manifesting in a war that regular people often get caught up in. That film’s cartel villains also represented present-day worries, and the frontier setting was a tapestry upon which to show exactly how American fears develop.

For Sheridan, it’s all part of the plan. “When I started writing Sicario, my plan was to do this sort of thematic trilogy on the modern American frontier and how much it changed and didn’t change,” he told me. “What were the consequences of actions a century ago today? So Sicario was my first venture into that, Hell or High Water was second, and Wind River [Sheridan’s 2017 directorial debut] is the conclusion.”

There are no plot connections between the three films, but it’s clear that Sheridan is looking to dig into recurring themes of the less glamorous bits of Americana. The reason so much of the clichéd parts of the American identity were developed and honed on the frontier is the same reason why the worst parts of it manifest so often there. “I live in the West and see all these consequences today that were forged 130 years ago,” Sheridan said.

The fact that banks are the villain in Hell or High Water reinforces Sheridan’s desire to depict the cyclical ironies of Americanness. Once it was white settlers, cowboys, prospectors, and oil magnates who prowled the Southwest, killing and swindling native inhabitants in one of the greatest land-grabs the world has ever seen. But now the descendants of many of those white settlers find themselves losing their land to Big Oil and to Wall Street, and they struggle to maintain or regain their status in two classic ways.

On one side are people who aspire to be literal or political Robin Hoods, banding together with other wronged groups to take from the rich and redistribute to the poor. On the other are those who acknowledge that status is relative, and lash out against big business and corruption while also seeking to keep their boots on the necks of immigrants or other minorities. Throughout Hell or High Water and to a lesser extent, Sicario, these are the dilemmas that white characters on the old and new frontier face. “A way of life is fading,” Sheridan told me, “just like the way of life for Plains Indians was fading them. There’s a cyclical nature to it that I think was worth writing about.”

As the anxieties of poor and working-class white people help define the shape of American politics, they show up in Hell or High Water in both forms. The banks are universal—they’ve screwed everyone regardless of race—but tensions with other people show themselves too. Jeff Bridge’s character Marcus, a Texas Marshal, launches salvo after salvo of racism against his partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. In a string of towns ruled by those tensions between in-groups and out-groups, the religious adherence to gun culture begins to make sense. There, it’s us or them.

But, as has always been the case for the West as a movie setting, it’s not just there. The West is here, and a crumbling sense of unity and omnipresent threat of violence afflict not only sparse towns in Texas and Oklahoma, but the most vibrant and ugly bits of dense urban America. Banks make sense as a villain, and still tend to unite most people politically because of the fear deep down that the only other enemy worth fighting is each other.