the story: Brothers turn bank robber to pay off their mother's mortgage.
what it's all about: The year it was released I wrote up some thoughts about Hell or High Water here in which I probed its general morality. Admittedly (and in the thoughts themselves I say so), I hadn't seen it yet. Now I have seen it a few times, and so I can revisit and talk about the movie itself.
It's a modern classic. It's a modern classic in much the way No Country for Old Men seemed to be. I'm still mulling over No Country itself; a lot of what I like about that one is the iconic Javier Bardem performance, as close to a single great acting creation as anything outside of Heath Ledger's Joker we've had since Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. Hell or High Water doesn't have anything like that. The closest it gets is Ben Foster's breakthrough as Chris Pine's hell-raising brother. Foster has quietly been growing into a brilliant actor, and nobody seems to have noticed. He's a lot like Pine, actually. Where Pine has occasionally created full-on characters (Smokin' Aces, Stretch), Foster has merely inhabited fascinating roles. Pine is most often in that mode, too, and he found his best to date in this film, so on that score alone Hell or High Water is watching.
It's also well worth watching for Jeff Bridges. Bridges has been around Hollywood for decades, but I think he's gotten far more interesting as he's aged. He's certainly been a standout in recent years even among critics. Crazy Heart earned him a Best Actor Oscar, which he followed with the Coens remake of True Grit. He's fallen off the radar since then, as his present act has become more familiar, but for me he remains fascinating, and in Hell or High Water he is fascinating. He's got the same sort of role Tommy Lee Jones had in No Country, but he plays it very differently. He wouldn't at all be out of place in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Bridges plays an ornery FBI agent days away from retirement. The role itself is a cliché, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan writes it with a purpose; the constant offensive ribbing he aims at his partner is metaphorical. They're in pursuit of Pine and Foster, whose goal is basically to stick it to the man. They're reacting against a system that seems to have no place for them. Bridges is trying to put things into perspective. He tells his partner at one point that it's his teasing that's going to be missed. His partner reflects about how the banks that are threatening to take away Pine and Foster's childhood home are just the latest in a long series of land seizures. He would know, because he's part Indian.
The most telling scene, maybe, in the whole movie is inside a casino, where the brothers are laundering their stolen money. Foster confronts a different Indian, whom Foster has been insulting (you can see the deliberate parallels here). The Indian has just explained that being a Comanche means everyone's an enemy. Foster's retort, why the Indian should leave him alone, is, "Because I'm a Comanche." He sees everyone as his enemy. That's the key to the whole character. Years ago he defended his mother against an abusive father. He ended up in jail because he later killed him (the trial bought it as a hunting accident, inside a barn). He agrees to go along with his brother's bank robbing scheme mostly because, well, everyone's his enemy already anyway. He's the crazy one; without him Pine couldn't have done any of it.
In framing it as being about the robberies themselves, that's the wrong interpretation. The whole story is a metaphor, about how the system has slowly turned against individuals like Pine, like his mother, anyone who can be exploited by a system, really. We've seen exploitation before, and in hindsight we always condemn it, but it's far harder to do in the present. We see something like the Great Recession, and we mostly think in terms of economic recovery. We don't particularly see or care about the lives being crushed because of it, or why. To its credit, Hollywood hasn't ignored the idea. Jim Carrey's Fun with Dick and Jane was pretty much the same story, and that was ten years earlier, when the CEO corruption scandals that eventually led to the Great Recession were first coming to light. The problem is, these movies don't change anything, and they don't even lead to conversations. This is an era about tough conversations, and yet we keep dodging the toughest ones.
Pine fears that his actions will forever sully his name. This fear is derived from the fact that he has growing boys who become the chief beneficiaries of his thefts. The money for the mortgage is actually so he can reclaim the property and thus lay claim to the oil that's been found beneath it. The same banks he robbed end up welcoming not only the stolen money, but the oil money, because in the end, money is money. Bridges figures all of this out. What he warns Pine is that it's not his reputation that he had to worry about, but his conscience. Foster ends up killing a few people during the course of events, and Bridges says that's Pine's responsibility; the robberies were his idea, and anything that happened during them or because of them are his fault, too. Pine will have to live with that.
Hell or High Water, then, is a cautionary tale. You can burn down paradise in order to do the right thing, but in the end, it's not satisfaction you've earned but a scorched earth, and that's what you're going to have to live with. The ends don't always justify the means. It's a fantasy Western, wish fulfillment in a time when injustice is insidious, systemic, and it doesn't care whether you're white or Indian or any other race. Sheridan has become one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood, whether as screenwriter or director; David Mackenzie is another director who's gotten to benefit from collaborating with him. Everything Sheridan creates adds to our understanding of how our world works, and where it needs improving. But he also issues warnings, and we'd be wise to heed them.