While the wild west has certainly evolved in the past two hundred years, Hell or High Water evokes the power of romantic frontier stories. This contemporary west is a stage for gunfights and thunderstorms as well as casinos and car chases. It’s a west where cowboys carry smartphones and drive new trucks, but also wear six shooters and cowboy hats. Hell or High Water brilliantly rides the line between family centered melodrama and frontier action film. By reaching into both genres for narrative elements, it tells a story which is appealing and meaningful on many fronts.
Scottish director David Mackenzie said of the film, “Although it’s very Texan, it’s also quite universal.” The protagonists wear checkered flannel, drive a square-body pickup, drink black coffee in a diner, and fight against an oppressive banking system. The portrayal of the Midwest settles between humorous and respectful. It appears every single pair of walking legs is carrying a gun and every billboard on the highway concerns getting out from underneath the weight of bureaucratic banks and oppressive loan agreements. Still, these citizens are shown as people who deeply love their town and will not hesitate to sling some lead on its behalf. The heroes are low-mimetic, wielding love and guns, not superpowers. And in this regard, the film’s appeal is quite broad.
Melodramas examine the virtues and vices, lengths and limitations of ordinary life by holding it up to the scrutiny of a larger stage. By thrusting ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances, they ask, “What does it mean to be human?” Hell or High Water answers that sometimes it looks like brothers resorting to desperate measures to protect family and heritage, and sometimes it looks like staving off retirement to bring wild men to justice. The dance may be action-packed, but the real confrontation takes place within the minds of the characters. Films like Hell or High Water uniquely situate characters to contend with themselves internally as persons whose beliefs are upheld at great cost. And there is also space for movement, room not only to uphold values, but also to allow oneself to be transformed.
Hell or High Water follows two sets of duos, a pair of bank robbers and a pair of lawmen. Each set of characters functions as a separate thread of the narrative until they merge for a showdown in act three. Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are the bank robbers, running from rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). Even with this classic outlaws and lawmen setup, the film doesn’t draw clear lines between good guys and bad guys. Instead, it poses larger questions about justice, retribution, and redemption. And in this space, we can sympathize with both the rangers and the bank robbers.
Toby and Tanner are average, ordinary Texas men who are placed in extraordinary circumstances (though the billboards on the interstate constantly advertising to people about getting out of debt suggest their dire circumstances are rather common). Tanner masterminds the plan to rob banks only so he can keep the bank from taking the family farm. It’s clear these two are not professional criminals – they are novice bank robbers to say the least. This film places two men in a corner, with the future of family at stake, and asks, “What do men like these do in times like this?” Times when people still herd cattle and walk around with six-shooters, and all in the shadow of banks that have been robbing them for years.
Marcus and Alberto are a duo of west Texas lawmen assigned with exacting the measure of the law against a bank robbing, farm saving duo. Their strange relationship is laced with biting humor but also underlined by mutual respect. For this film to work, the law has to be incarnated by honorable, likable men. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play their roles remarkably, and they allow this film to inhabit the dramatic tension between cheering for the outlaws with a good cause and empathizing with the rule of law which must bring them in.
One of the film’s best elements is its use of tropes within both narrative strands. Each of the duos is characterized by a clear leader – it’s Toby who came up with the bank-robbing scheme, and it’s Marcus who leads the charge against him – and both are paired with a sidekick. In the case of the rangers, the trope is obvious, a cowboy and an Indian, and one which Marcus takes every opportunity to note. He constantly provokes Alberto with jabs about being part Indian and Mexican. Beer also functions as a trope within Toby and Tanner’s relationship. Tanner doesn’t shy away from pain, but he needs something to cut the harshness of his reality. He’s been rejected by his father, he’s killed a man, he’s lived a hard life, and he’s drinking at every turn. On the other hand, Toby is hesitant to drink. He’s trying to figure out how to be a parent and a cooperative ex-husband.
Romantic relationships also serve as a trope Mackenzie uses to get the audience acquainted with his characters. Tanner hits on women in the casino lobby and has a one-night stand in a hotel room while Toby lies awake, back turned. His casual sex is an expression of the shallow nature of most of his relationships. In contrast, Toby is twice approached by women who are interested in him, and twice he must turn them away; he’s a bank robber, but he’s also trying to be a decent man and a decent father. Despite his attempts, Toby’s ex-wife is cold towards him and cuts off attempts at reconciliation.
The mythology of any culture is constructed in binaries, clear distinctions of good and evil. Films like Hell or High Water are valuable in their ability to both lend insight into and rearrange these binaries. They construct tensions inhabited by characters who must navigate them or die trying. This film incorporates established cultural motifs (outlaws and lawmen, farmers and banks, cowboys and Indians), but doesn’t force obvious, tired conclusions. These motifs are contrasted and paralleled. While the bank robbers’ narrative is certainly more action-packed, it doesn’t outpace the lawmen’s side of the story. Mackenzie’s storytelling incorporates the best elements of the melodrama and action film, culminating in a wonderful cinematic trip through west Texas.