Haven’t we all been asking that question, since the 2008 Credit Crunch? The banks lost all the money, yet are still stuffed to the brim with the stuff. Of course, that’s a simplistic version of events. ‘Hell or High Water’ works as a tense bank heister thriller and an angry response to the Credit Crunch (does it need capitalising or not?). We root for the two bank robbers because, in our mind, they are in the right. Why should we care about banks being robbed? They’ve robbed us for long enough. It’s raging against the machine of capitalism whilst presenting a story full of compelling characters, twists and turns.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are two brothers robbing the banks of a specific banking corporation, Texas Midlands Bank. The Bank has threatened to foreclose their family ranch. They arouse the suspicion of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is close to retirement. Hamilton, along with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), attempt to find out the identity of the bank robbers and stop them.
“What don’t you want?”
Of course, we are supposed to root for the two brothers and the Texas Rangers at the same time. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but ‘Hell or High Water’ manages it elegantly. Chris Pine puts in his best performance ever as Toby, the more sympathetic brother. After a failed marriage (with two kids), the farm is all he has left. Tanner has just been released from jail. He’s the wild card of the two brothers, his very unpredictability making him the more entertaining brother to watch.
The brothers have an uneasy rapport at times, just as Hamilton and half Mexican half Native American Parker do. Bridges is effortlessly likeable in general, and his racist jibes at Parker push that likeability to its boundaries. It’s playful in nature, just like an older brother teasing a younger sibling. The relationship between Hamilton and Parker is just as touching as that between the two actual brothers. Parker would find it hard to work without Hamilton’s jibes, just as Hamilton would be lonely without Parker to tease. The brothers complement each other, the Rangers complement each other, and each duo complement each other thanks to superb writing and acting.
“Ask and you shall receive”
Both sides are the ‘good guys’ of the narrative. The main villain is the banking system. Texas Midland Bank (or, at least, a mortgage advisor working at a branch) allowed the brothers’ mom to open a reverse mortgage, leaving the ranch in severe debt. For the banks, it is all about the money and targeting the poor and needy. They loaned her just enough to let her survive for a bit, but not enough to help her out of debt. No character, minor or major, seems to have any love lost for the bankers. After witnessing a bank robbery, one man says “they’ve been robbin’ me for twenty years.”
We are both told and see the destruction that the banks have caused, thanks to some inspired cinematography and direction. When the brothers or the Rangers are out on the road, they pass empty shops, signs with ‘Debt Relief’ or ‘Quick Loan’ plastered across them, and misery-stricken people in the background. One particular visual pun amused me, a ‘shell’ of a Shell garage. Texas is portrayed as a forgotten land (of course, it’s ironic that oil could be the Banner’s saviour), wasted away by the evil banks. But there’s also a reference to another irony; a casino built on Native American land. What you reap is what you sow.
“Lord of the plains…that’s me!”
Of course, cinematography, acting, direction and themes mean nothing without a riveting story. And while the story of ‘Hell or High Water’ seems simple on the face of it, the twists and turns give the film a subtle complexity. It’s a gripping narrative, even though the climax seems inevitable. Some may grumble at the finale, but it felt like a fitting end to the plot. Right from the beginning, the first heist, predictable events become unpredictable. The heists, and most conversations for that matter, are riven with tension. Moments of levity are necessary breathers in between the action and suspense. There are some belly laughs that were absent in some so-called comedies that I watched last year.
‘Hell Or High Water’ seems unoriginal at first glance. A heist thriller looking at the consequences of the Credit Crunch? A film that points the blame at the banking system? A cop about to retire? A man robbing banks for a moral reason? But it’s greater than the sum of its parts and abounds in originality, even when its aping a particular film. It is a blend of Western and heist movie. For tension, suspense, comedy and “realistic” heist scenes, ‘Hell Or High Water’ is almost unparalleled. There are plenty of screams against the ravages of capitalism/banks, but also plenty of nail-biting scenes (not just those involving guns and banks).
VERDICT: 9/10. ‘Hell Or High Water’ is a gripping, scathing look at the consequences of the Credit Crunch. Perfectly shot, directed and acted, it’s simple yet complex story will reap rewards on repeated viewings.
What did you think of ‘Hell or High Water’? Leave your comments below!