The stakes are high for a pair of bank robbing brothers in 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” who fight the clock to save their childhood home from foreclosure after their abusive mother succumbs to a lengthy cancer battle, leaving a mountain of debt to a greedy chain of Texas Midland banks.
This film is a return to the themes shown throughout early and mid-19th century films of evil banks and their morally justified robbers. “Hell or High Water” portrays Texas Midlands Bank as a group of swindlers willing to con a dying, dirt-poor woman of her last dime and her home. For the audience, we too want retribution, justice and catharsis for the brothers.
Make no mistake, this is a cowboy movie.
Set on the dry plains of Texas, there are Texas Rangers in pursuit of bandito brothers and more than a few fights and shootouts. All the while, a stockpile of untapped oil sits underneath the ground of the bank-robbing brothers’ family home. That being said, this film is still a very delicate and interesting display of the loyalty and bonds between family, no matter how broken or fragmented that family may be.
Toby, played by Chris Pine, is a cautious man with some trepidation for his older brother’s bank-robbing methodology and way of life. But for their differences, Toby does love his brother to a fault.
Toby has flaws of his own as well. He is a divorced, absentee father, and the mastermind of the brothers’ plan to rob the Texas Midland banks to pay back the very same banks. This is an irony the brothers’ attorney relishes in, as he too finds it vile that the bank was willing to bleed Toby and Tanner’s mother dry.
Tanner, played wonderfully wild by Ben Foster, is an ex-con who spent 10 years in prison and has only been a free man for a year. He is fast and loose and lives moment to moment. Living by a code of recklessness and danger makes him more than willing to enlist himself in his brother’s idea to rob the bank that has been robbing them. While Tanner has shrugged much responsibility in life and is lightning in a bottle, he will do anything for his brother, even sacrifice his own life.
While these brothers rob banks, Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger character chases them. He is near his retirement date and is in need, whether he admits it or not, of one last adventure on the job, while pondering what his life is worth without the badge. Embarking on this journey, he constantly ribs his partner with tone-deaf humor regarding his partner’s mixed ethnicity, while meaning nothing by the joshing.
Eventually, as expected and hoped for, the paths of the two duos cross — the law verses the vigilante — but not before the final bank robbery of the brothers’ planned run goes relatively successfully. The twist, however, is that Tanner knows he has nothing to lose after the robbery and his brother stands to lose it all. So when the men stop to transition getaway vehicles, Tanner tells his brother he loves him and leaves Toby to take the new car alone, as the police will still be looking for the pair.
Tanner, after having parted with his brother, seems gleeful as he leads a short chase with police and begins his penultimate standoff with the law. He ascends a small sand and rock covered mountain and begins expertly shooting at the police and the two Texas Rangers, killing Bridges’ partner. Shocked and angered, Bridges enlists a private citizen with a rifle and truck near the scene to drive him to a vantage point where he can kill Tanner. The man obliges.
In his last moments alive, Tanner drinks in his run as an outlaw and pauses. Taking in the majestic desert beauty around him, he utters “lord of the plains” before succumbing to Bridges’ sniper shot. Though ultimately villainous in his deeds, it still hurts to see Tanner die because he sacrificed himself for his brother and nephew’s future.
There are a lot of things that shouldn’t be in this movie. We root for a duo of bank robbers when morally we shouldn’t, no matter what kind of deal the bank had worked out with their mother. We pity the old Texas Ranger in Bridges even though we should scold the Ranger for constantly antagonizing his partner. And we reel in pain when we see a killer and lifelong criminal like Tanner die.
That is how you know a film is powerful and effective — when it can move you to feel things that you should never rationally feel. That is why “Hell or High Water” connects with the audience so deeply.
Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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