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.