The American Dream was once the gold standard for the socially aspirational, enshrining the enticing idea that with enough grit, determination and in the nascent nation of the USA, boundless opportunity, anyone from anywhere could make something substantial of their lives. Complicit in this philosophy of social betterment was a promise of economic prosperity, a sense that your children would, by definition of your hard work and social ascension, be financially better off than you.
But that was now and this is then, and in the new post-2008 reality of a superpower past its 20th century superpower prime, an already ailing promise is well near its death knell in the semi-arid plains of west Texas, the setting for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.
Drawing off a finely-nuanced script by Taylor Sheridan, the film doesn’t pull any punches, presenting you with a litany of woes from depressed local economies and block upon block of boarded shops and ailing enterprises, endless signs advertising debt relief, graffiti lamenting the death of opportunity (“Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” laments one store-side scribbling) and a general sense among the populace that the banks are the real thieves in a world turned on its head by economic privation.
This is important, not simply to give context to the narrative but because it underscores why people like nascent bank robbers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) attract as much understanding as gunfire-riddled opprobrium, where the Texas Rangers on their tail such as Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) don’t receive the kind of support they might expect in tracking men who are technically criminals but who could just as easily be described as folk heroes.
And in a very real sense they are.
Toby is the stable, responsible younger brother who remained on the family cattle ranch with his ailing soon to be dead mother, scarping a barely-decent living with no real financial means and none of the once much-ballyhooed opportunity of the American Dream.
The discovery of considerable oil reserves under the dusty, scrabbly plains on which the ranch’s skinny cattle graze promises the kind of wealth that he can only dream of, being the latest in many generations of poor farmers, an endemic condition he likens at one point to a disease.
The only catch? The Texas Midlands Bank has a lien on the property and unless he can front up with $43,000 USD by the end of the week, his one slim shot at economic prosperity for his two sons will be lost and the bank will take possession of the ranch for a pittance.
So he enlists the aid of his impetuous, reckless but charismatic ex-jail inmate brother – it’s intimated he killed their abusive father, among other things – to pull off a series of robberies at branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, a high-risk strategy with only one real upside and plenty of downsides, in the hope that he can secure some sort of future for his family and break the endless cycle of poverty.
Naturally being an amateur bank robber with no real experience of what’s instore for him, Toby struggles to adapt to the violence and brutality inherent in terrifying people while you rob them blind. He never quite adjusts to that but Tanner takes to it like a duck returned to its natural water habitat, robbing with the kind of gusto and chutzpah that Bonnie and Clyde would find it endearing.
But Hell or High Water is not necessarily about venerating the two brothers as modern Robin Hoods nor demonising the Rangers; rather it uses this race against time to secure a slice of the American Dream, and its inherent social commentary on the near-impossibility of obtaining it by other legal means, to explore the power of bonds between brothers and a father’s love for his sons.
This theme of the motivating power of unconditional, self-sacrificial love powers the narrative, imbuing it with an emotional resonance so impacting that you come to understand why two men would risk so much on such a dangerous endeavour.
Beyond that though, Hell or High Water is a cry for justice in a landscape where morality and the promise of the Wild West has decayed and given way to profligate profiteering by banks and other financial institutions and where any opportunity for advancement has disappeared over the prairie plains with the latest dust storm.
While it is a good old-fashioned cops and robber chase film in one sense, with a climax that both builds to an expected climax while also eschewing it, a narrative sleight of hand that grants it a uniqueness in the genre, its primary goal is the exploration of whether its even possible to grab a hold of the brass ring anymore, and if the worthy ends even begin to justify the clearly-illegal means.
The film is so finely-balanced and so authentically clear in its voice that its well nigh impossible not to side with the brothers even when some parts of their grand plan don’t quite go to plan and there is some collateral damage.
But Hell or High Water is far more sophisticated than a simple moral equation of goodies vs. baddies – taking in all the wider issues already discussed and the inevitability of anything changing anytime soon, if ever, it is a wry, emotionally-evocative commentary on the passing of a lost world and whether there is any chance of ever getting it back.
Bolstered by universally fine performances, most particularly by Bridges, Pine and Foster, the film is both a social polemic laced with wry, dark humour and a tale of two brothers, one ranch and the disappearance of the American Dream which in 2016 is more figment of the imagination than achievable reality.