And, Scene: Hell or High Water

The Atlantic looks back at key cinematic moments in 2016, this time David Mackenzie’s pulpy West Texas bank-robber drama.

Lionsgate / CBS Films

Over the last two weeks, The Atlantic has delved into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2016. Today: David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)

From its opening shot, Hell or High Water isn’t coy about its sympathies. As the camera pans across a dreary-looking town in West Texas, it catches a prominent bit of graffiti tagged on the white bricks of a local bank branch. “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US,” it reads. Watching David Mackenzie’s film is the equivalent of having a shotgun muzzle waved in your face: After all, this is a movie about unsubtle folk—bank robbers with focused, if misguided, Robin Hood complexes—living in unsubtle times. In a year when much was written trying to delve into the psyche of Middle America, Hell or High Water did the same while trying to have some fun in the process.

This is, first and foremost, a genre film, a neo-Western crossing the angry anti-heroes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with the barren modern Texan landscapes of Friday Night Lights. After their first successful robbery of the day, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), clad in ski masks, drive to the next town over to stick up another branch, driving past signs advertising home refinancing and debt relief. At the next bank, Toby and Tanner run into a customer depositing a box of old pennies he found in his barn. “You got a gun on you, old man?” Tanner asks him. “You’re goddamn right I got a gun on me,” he replies with a snarl.

As they exit the building with a handful of cash, the customer grabs his revolver and shoots as they flee, firing wildly at their getaway car. It’s a rollicking, telling scene that doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the intense action and high stakes. Moments like these suggest Hell or High Water is a worthy resurrection of Hollywood pulp at a time when “genre filmmaking” largely refers to expensive, inoffensive franchise blockbusters. Made on a small budget and released in August, when films like Suicide Squad dominated at the box office, it was one of the surprise successes of the year, and now seems headed for Oscar glory.

The film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, also wrote last year’s Sicario, which took a dark, granular look at the bloody worthlessness of the War on Drugs. Both films, he told Indiewire, are about the “modern-day American frontier,” the border states gripped by foreclosures, high rates of drug addiction, and the pervasive anti-immigration sentiment that helped spur Donald Trump’s swift rise in the Republican primaries. “I was exploring the death of a way of life, and the acute consequences of the mortgage crisis in East Texas,” Sheridan said. One might as well call Hell or High WaterEconomic Anxiety: The Movie” for the way that it cleverly illustrates how the desolation of rural America can drive truly unforgivable behavior.

The nobler Toby and the live-wire Tanner are committing their crimes for a good reason, though it takes a while for their plot to fully come into focus—long enough that the audience is vaguely on their side without totally understanding why. But their desperation still wreaks havoc; despite Toby’s good intentions (like so many anti-heroes, he doesn’t want anyone hurt), things slide into baser violence. Chasing them around the state are Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a grouchy odd couple who gently, but persistently mock each other (Alberto ribs Marcus’s age, and Marcus makes casually, horribly racist jokes about Alberto’s Mexican and Native American heritage). The “wit” on display is often painful, but that’s part of Sheridan’s point—that the country’s divisions are drawn so deeply, Marcus’s insults are one of the only ways he can relate to his partner.

Hell or High Water is as jarring and uncomfortable as it is tense and fun. Yes, there are parts of America that still feel like a cowboy nation—and everyone at the bank, be they security guards or customers, might be toting a gun on their hip. It’s a depiction of a region that feels at once authentic and cartoonish, reinforcing stereotypes we might be loath to acknowledge while deepening them all the same.

Previously: Weiner

Next Up: American Honey