Neo-Westerns are the rough terrain that remain untamed and unclaimed by the heebs. Political Correctness does not sell here. Any feminist watching one would go into conniptions from their “toxic masculinity.” The men have guns and the women have curves. No one trusts the bank and everybody owes.
Hell or High Water is a tale of poor Southern White folks — Texans to be specific — suffering at the hands of usurious banksters who want to seize the land these people raised their kids on as the shylock’s pound of flesh. It’s not the protagonists that I’m referring to as “these people.” It’s the supporting cast. This is a film that excels at capturing the atmosphere of a place passing through the sieve of time. The quality of character that made the land, its sky above, and the people between so very great are being filtered out by modernity. The modern world is robbing Texas towns of their soul and the soil of its blood. In Hell or High Water we see the sovereign Lone Star demoted to one more vassal state in Weimerica.
I’ll tell it to you straight.: We’ve got us here a story you’ve all heard before. Two cow-pokes-turned-bank-robbers. Two Texas Rangers trying to out-think and out-maneuver them into the reach of the long arm of the law. That said, the story could take place over a century and a half ago. But this is a tale of the here and now in the dismal financial fallout of Obama’s America — and the desperation of much of White America.
Spoiler Alert: The following contains a lot of plot summary. The movie is highly recommended, but you might want to see it first.
Two masked bandits approach a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank. As the audience will later learn, Midlands Bank issued what is known as a reverse mortgage, where the bank loans a homeowner (usually elderly) enough money to keep the house until they die. Then the bank repossesses the house. It’s an offer sometimes made to a person who can no longer afford their home, or is living on valuable land unbeknownst to them. It won’t take much surfing on YouTube to uncover how many financial advisers warn their clients not to agree to such a loan. The mother of these bank robbers has passed away, so now Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) have only a few days left to pay the debt before the bank forecloses on the property. Toby is divorced, with two sons who are not impressed with their father and his inability to pay child support.
Graffiti on the rear of the bank reads “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” The writing on the wall sets the populist tone for the film. If Texas Midlands Bank does not exist to safeguard the interests of Texans, why should it be allowed to exist? Their only interest seems to be capitalism for the sake of capitalism.
A very homely looking bank teller walks in and is taken from behind by the robbers. It’s clear to her they don’t know what they’re doing since they want her to open the bank vault, something most people are aware requires at least one bank manager. They throw the teller to the floor and wait for the manager. He eats a pistol butt for breakfast and the two speed away with Tanner behind the wheel. Toby looks uncertain about it all, while his brother seems high from the adrenaline.
The second bank is close by. A well-aged cowboy brings in what appear to be silver-era coins to assess their value. Again the bandits appear. “Y’all robbing the bank?!” Asks the shocked old-timer. They tell him to shut up. He shakes his head, “That’s crazy! Y’all ain’t even Mexicans!” These sort of gems are sprinkled all along the Great Plains of this cinematic masterpiece. They ask if he has a gun. “Of course I have a gun! Y’all gonna rob me of my gun?!” Toby takes the man’s gun and places it on the counter telling him they only came to rob the bank. This is a move so naive it almost garners sympathy for the thieves this early in the story. As soon as they step away from the counter, the old man grabs his six-shooter. Shots ring out. Glass shatters. This escape is so narrow that we’re left with the impression of sheer desperation our anti-heroes are feeling and the sense that Toby did not inherit the viciousness that comes so easily to his brother Tanner. As their getaway car kicks up a dusty trail, Tanner lets loose a war cry and exclaims “We’re like the Comanches little brother! Raiding where we please. . . with the whole of Texas hunting our shadow!”
Enter the Lawmen. Texas Rangers, that is…
It’s been a common trope of Westerns to team a detective or sheriff (often near retirement) with a plucky brown sidekick. In this instance Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (deftly portrayed by Jeff Bridges in a role that has earned him an Oscar nod) is saddled with one Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), his half Mexican, half AmerIndian partner. The tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of this clichéd pairing is demonstrated by masterful screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also known for the 2015 crime thriller Sicario) in an early exchange as the two drive to a nearby town where Tanner made an impromptu robbery of another branch of Texas Midlands:
“Who knows? Maybe one of these bank robbers is gonna want a gun fight and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory.
Well I’ve seen you shoot. Won’t be much glory in it
[chuckles] Well I’m lucky I got a half breed by my side to avenge me. If you can stay sober enough, knowing how you Injuns like the bottle!”
The horizon is layered with flame and smoke. The heat makes a wavy mirage in the distance. Half a dozen cowpokes struggle with a small herd of cattle. The lawmen slow their car.
Ranger Hamilton whistles loudly.
“Hey! Whuch-y’all dewin’ — you burning this field?
Burn this? Why the shit would we do that? This kicked up on the highway, been chasing us ever since.
Wish we could do something for ya. . .
I oughta just let it turn me into ashes and put me out of my misery. Twenty-first century and I’m racing a fire to the river with a herd of cattle. And I wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living!”
The fence is cut. There’s a holler to get the herd moving. Ranger Parker asks if they should call it in, but Hamilton responds that there’s no one to call around here anyway. He watches a scene that was once familiar to him. It’s as if he were recalling the distant memory of a dream. Something fleeting, passing away with time is now finally consumed by an awesome conflagration. A burnt sacrifice. The old world is going up in smoke. The unnamed man on the horse trots away with his cattle and cowpokes under the rising black clouds from the grass fire. The frustrated cowboy is played by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. He’s also played Deputy Chief David Hale in the early episodes of Sons of Anarchy before showcasing his talents as a storyteller.
Hamilton and Parker arrive at a diner full of cynical witnesses. What details about the thieves they can glean from the locals do not come easily. Even the waitress (who earned a $200 tip from Tyler) has nothing but sass for Ranger Hamilton. The unwillingness of the diner’s patrons to be forthcoming with accounts of the incident lies in their utter contempt for the bank and the financial squeeze they’ve experienced at its hands. The waitress tells the Ranger he should get a warrant if he wants the tip the handsome stranger left her, snapping at him that she’ll be using it to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. An old timer nursing his coffee in a booth with his friends tells the lawman that “the days of robbing banks and living to spend it are long gone. . . . Long gone for sure.” Again the point is driven home to the audience that the Wild West has wasted away.
The brothers have to launder their stolen loot. On the way to an Oklahoma Indian Casino they discuss Toby’s family troubles. He’s got a boy that’s going to make it into Texas A&M on a football scholarship but he’s too much like his uncle Tanner. The ex-con tells him the boy will turn out fine provided he turns left where Tanner turned right. These types of exchanges give insight to why these men are doing this. None of these robberies are for personal gain. They want to keep their mother’s house to secure a future for the family’s bloodline — Toby’s two sons.
At the casino they trade in their stolen cash for poker chips. As the scene unfolds we’re treated to more auditory caviar as the soundtrack carries the scene into the next great act of our journey. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis deliver a riveting score with original compositions and a few choice songs by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard to name a few. Whether it’s downhome country or a soft violin, the motion picture soundtrack to Hell or High Water begs you to put the lights down low, move the rocking chair to the porch and start sippin’ whiskey from a jar.
Tanner bellies up to the poker table for Texas Hold Em’. After a few hands his ire is up and when the Indian at the far end of the table decides to check-raise (a power move in America’s favorite game of cards), he scoffs “Don’t chase me chief!” The Indian takes off the sunglasses he’s been wearing indoors this whole time and stares down the White man. “You Comanche?” Tanner inquires. The Indian nods. “Lords of the plains?” He asks with a grin, trying to ease the obvious tension. “Lords of nothing now,” the brave responds, flatly. He calls Tanner’s bluff and the cowboy, having lost and insulted what could possibly be a very drunk and angry Redman decides to take his leave.
His new foe stands and puts his sunglasses back on — a dramatic gesture intended to lower the tone of the stare. “Do you know what Comanche means?,” he asks rhetorically. “It means enemies forever.” Tanner, unnerved, asks “Enemies with who?” The Indian replies “Everyone.” Tanner inquires if the man knows what that makes him. The Comanche tells him it makes him an enemy. “No,” Tanner retorts. “It makes me a Comanche.”
With this exchange, Tanner not only distinguishes himself as an unrepentant outlaw, but reveals a subtext to the film’s narrative. These kinds of White men are going the way of the Comanche. Hell or High Water speaks to White America in a visceral way. It’s Cowboy Kali Yuga on the silver screen. The final days of an age defined by its terminal decline.
The morning comes and we find the brothers back in their hometown, in the office of a local lawyer. They’ve made him executor of the estate, as insurance in case they’re charged with any crimes (or shot outright). The lawyer is accommodating. Tanner, as an ex-con, is wary. He’s not the type who has ever been trusting of lawyers.
“How much you makin’ off of this deal?
Not near as much as I’m risking.
. . . Why you doing it then?
[After a contemplative pause] You know they loaned the least they could. . . just enough to keep your momma poor on a guaranteed return? They thought they could swipe her land for twenty five thousand dollars. That’s just so arrogant it makes my teeth hurt. To see you boys pay those bastards back with their own money. . ? Well if that ain’t Texan I don’t know what is.”
Rangers Hamilton and Parker sit outside a small town diner in a little town in west Texas. Parker questions this stake out, accusing Hamilton of stretching out the investigation to avoid the inevitability of his retirement and the subsequent boredom and feelings of inadequacy that may come with it. He encourages the old timer to take a long hard look at their surroundings, asking if he would want to live in such a town. Industry has left its indelible mark on the land. Across the plains are the remnants of bustling towns whose economy and population have become emaciated. These are people who prospered, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. Their families were abandoned when industry migrated its factories across the border and those unqualified to work there came over and took the low-wage jobs. The banks swooped in, offering refinancing and new mortgages to the desperate, who received loans that would be just enough to keep the bank away for a few years while they get back on their feet. But they never do get back on their feet. The banks know the jobs aren’t coming back.
“How’re these people supposed to make a living here?” Ranger Parker asks.
“People have made a living here for 150 years.” replies Hamilton.
“Well, people lived in caves for 150 thousand years. They don’t do it no more.”
“Well maybe your people did.”
Your people did too. A long time ago your ancestors was the Indians. Til’ someone came along and killed them, broke em down and made you into one of them. 150 years ago all this was my ancestors land. And Everything you can see. Everything you saw yesterday. Til’ their grandparents of these folks took it. And now it’s been taken from them. Cept’ it ain’t no army doing it. It’s those sons of bitches right there [points to the bank].”
We cut to a scene of the brothers sipping beers on the porch, making jokes about women they’ve known. Night falls on Texas and they play a little tag. Tipsy and stupid, like teens. Just for a moment we glimpse an innocence they left behind. When the dawn comes, they’ll hit their last bank. After bacon and eggs, they head out to another branch. It’s closed down. They choose a place not far away, but halfway there, Tanner stops his little brother along the roadside. The branch in Coleman is too small. He’s got a different idea. They reorient and head to a little town called Post. In the meantime Rangers Parker and Hamilton go over logistics. Hamilton quickly eliminates other candidates for robbery — one town closed its branch, another is just too large and busy. There’s one place that fits the bill. A branch of Texas Midlands Bank in a little town called Post….
Toby is worried. He looks around, observing the hustle and bustle on the streets of the town. Tanner is undeterred. They roll into the bank like thunder. Toby is mortified as he counts heads of the patrons forced to lie on the ground. There must be damn near thirty. His older brother begins to shout orders, taking charge as usual. A redhead with freckles sends a text to her hubby and the locals speed over to deliver some Texan justice. Another patron slips out his concealed carry as an unseen bank guard creeps up a hallway they failed to clear. This is why you don’t rob banks in Texas.
Bullets fly and Tanner returns fire to the guard. Another patron begins to shoot and Toby returns fire blindly. Tanner hops the counter and puts a slug through the man’s skull. If there had been any redeeming qualities to his character, they ended with the pull of that trigger. The streets are chaos. A hail of bullets greets them. Windows shatter and car doors are turned into Swiss cheese. The getaway is sloppy. Toby takes two bullets that passed cleanly through his side. He’s hurt, but still in the fight. The locals chase after the brothers as Ranger Parker gets the call that confirms Hamilton’s hunch.
Anticipation builds as the standoff draws near. Toby duct tapes his wounds, and his older brother reverts to his contingency plan: automatic weapons. The locals get lit up and the outlaws make it to a car left outside of town. A few words pass between the brothers. This is the end and they both know it. One will live on to care for his sons. One will fall.
A long train of lawmen roar past Toby without giving him a second glance. Tanner has drawn them to him. The bullet-riddled Bronco kicks up a trail of dust as he barrels towards a nearby ridge, seeking the high ground. Ranger Hamilton tells Parker “This is what they call White man’s intuition”.
Parking at the height of the ridge, Tanner sticks a rag into an old gas can, grabs his rifle, starts to fire and hops out throwing the truck into neutral. It rolls down the hill and goes up like the Hindenburg on collision with the vehicles below, buying him a few precious seconds. Hamilton insists they need a helicopter and a SWAT team now. They seek cover behind a State Trooper’s car while the lone outlaw does his best Charles Whitman impression. Still milking the racial humor for all it’s worth, Ranger Hamilton chides Parker to run up there and tomahawk the man. His joke is interrupted by the sound of lead smacking into meat faster than Mach 1. He checks on his partner. There’s only a tiny hole in his cheek but when he removes his ten gallon hat, twelve ounces or so of particularly important brain matter falls out of the back of his cranium and with it, the plucky brown sidekick trope drains away into the Texas brush. That Taylor Sheridan sure knows how to write.
One of the locals has caught up, and Hamilton hops into his vehicle. “How well do you know the land around here?,” the Ranger asks. “Like the back of my hand!” comes the reply. He orders him to take him to the ridge behind the one Tanner is perched on. The Texan informs him it’s going to be a 500 yard shot. “Just get me there!” snaps the lawman.
Tanner rains down unholy terror on the troopers below. He grins, enjoying the anarchy he’s sown. “Lord of the plains.” He mutters to himself. “That’s me.” Something unseen reaches out and touches him. Call it God, or the Great Spirit. Call it White man’s intuition. He turns. Not many in his situation get to see it coming. Ranger Hamilton lets out a long breath and squeezes the trigger.
As the epilogue moseys on over to the credits Toby Howard settles up with the bank and a now-retired Marcus Hamilton walks into his old office. He wants to sneak a peek at the case file for Tanner Howard. That intuition of his has turned into a bad itch. After going over the prior arrests of the man he shot, the Ranger who has inherited his desk informs him that the brother isn’t suspected of being the other robber. No arrests, and only one court appearance — at his divorce. She informs Marcus that Toby Howard now has Chevron oil pumps on his land, sucking up $50k worth of crude a month. The family trust? Managed by Texas Midlands Bank, an institution dedicated to capitalism for the sake of capitalism.
The film ends with Marcus and Toby on the porch of the Howard ranch house, the steady up and down of oil pumps behind them. Each has lost someone close. Each has finished a monumental task that’s left neither feeling satisfied. There are no answers, it seems. Only questions. Marcus wants to know why. Toby asks if he has a family. Toby describes the poverty of his family as a disease. Marcus informs him that his partner had a family, and no one is churning black gold out of their yard. Toby, rifle in hand, challenges the retired Ranger to quick draw the pistol in his belt. They lock eyes. A cold blue stare passes between them. Toby’s ex-wife pulls up and steps out of the pick-up with their two boys. Her contempt for her former husband is apparent. He now informs the old man he actually doesn’t live there. Marcus chuckles. “The things we do for our kids. . .”
After a quick chat with his ex he turns to Marcus and lets him know he’s got a small place in town where he’s welcome to come and see him soon. He’d rather be done with this for good, but Marcus tells him this will haunt him for the rest of his days. “If you stop by maybe I’ll give you peace.” Toby says. “Oh, maybe,” replies the old Ranger, “maybe I’ll give it to you.”
Hell or High Water is an old story made new. An American tale replete with cowboys and Indians, poor Whites and robber barons, Texas Rangers and unforgiven outlaws. It’s a fleeting glimpse at the last traces of the Wild West that leaves you wondering if the spirit of those times can be reborn. I can’t recommend it enough.