Hell or High Water Might be the Best American Film of 2016

Directed by David Mackenzie
Lionsgate, 102 minutes, R (violence, language, very brief motel bonking)

A scene from Hell or High Water captures the film’s essence in one short slice of crisp dialogue. After a casino poker stare down between Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and an enormous Native American appropriately named Bear (Gregory Cruz), the two confront each other in the lobby.

            Tanner: “Hey chief, you a Comanche?”
            Bear (Whips off sunglasses and glares at Tanner): “Yeah. Do you know what Comanche means?”
            Tanner (Standing toe-to-toe and glaring back: “Nope.”
            Bear (Nostrils flaring): “It means ‘enemy.’”
            Tanner (Inching closer and not batting an eye): “Oh yeah? You know what that makes me?  
              Bear: (Fists tightening) : An enemy? 
              Tanner (Long pause): A Comanche!”

Confrontation over. Both men understand that life in this dire chunk of hell on the Texas/Oklahoma border isn’t about race—it’s a survivor’s game in which normal rules are inoperable and the American Dream is a cruel joke.  Forget materialist promises—not since the days of Harry Dean Stanton has Texas been betrayed as this dire: a string of busted down towns about to crumble into dust. The only businesses are greasy spoons, cheap motels, debt relief services, bail bondsmen, and the Texas Midlands Bank—the last to whom most locals owe their souls. Tanner is the embodiment of despair: thirty-years-old and he’s spent ten of them in jail. Now he’s released to a dust-blown ranch upon which his mother–who died before his release–took out a reverse mortgage. His little brother, Toby (Chris Pine), is the nominal owner, but unless he can come up with 35 grand by month’s end, Midland will foreclose—despite (or, because of) the fact that oil has been discovered on the land.

Toby has his own crosses to bear. Not only is he on the cusp of losing the only thing that could end (at least) three-generations’ worth of poverty, he’s a divorced father of two boys, way behind on his child support, and simply fed up with being fed up. The solution? Team up with Tanner and rob remote Midland Bank branch offices. Take only loose, non-traceable bills from their cash drawers. Continue and hope this will raise enough money to buy the ranch back with Midlands' own money! At least that Toby’s plan–but he’s not as far gone as Tanner.

Enter the law. It’s the last case before forced retirement for the wily Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who hits the dirt byways with his mixed race partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton knows the Texas backcountry and its ways, but he’s grown tired, sick, and cynical. He wiles away long days of waiting by cracking racist jokes he thinks are funny and endearing—and they are meant to be the latter–about Alberto’s Indian heritage, much to Alberto’s growing disgust.

Hell or High Water is far more than your average solve-the-crime film. It’s not only the best film to emerge from a desultory summer of blow-‘em-ups, ridiculous superhero comic remakes, and mediocre sci-fi—it’s also a strong candidate for the best American film of 2016. Moral ambiguity oozes from each encounter in this film, and we soon come to see this as hopelessness in a hopeless land. It’s not the bank robbers who are on trial; it’s the banks they loot and, more generally, the very essence of the American Dream. In these parts, hard work and moral values beget poverty, and poverty begets devil-take-the-hindmost apathy. This isn’t a place of rugged individualism—more like a who-gives-a-fuck temperament. If you are left wondering who in their right mind would continue to live in West Texas*, you missed an important point: these are people who lack options.

Amazing performances dominate this film, with the Californian Pine proving his chops with accents and establishing the fact that he’s more than a pretty face. Gil Birmingham is wonderful as a calm man doing his best to contain simmering outrage, and Bridges once again manages to be dynamic whilst playing a world-weary character–in this case a role similar to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men (2007). In fact, the Texas State Chamber of Commerce ought to consider paying Stanton, Jones, and Bridges to never again portray a Texan, lest no tourist ever venture to the Lone Star State.

Kudos go to Taylor Sheridan for a sharp screenplay. One of the things that keeps Hell or High Water from becoming relentlessly depressing is that is punctuated with moments of laugh-out-loud humor. There is a small throw away scene in which Alberto and Marcus plop down at a small town T-bone restaurant and must endure a tongue lashing from the waitress (Margaret Bowman). It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. Equally amusing are the small bits of buddy banter between the Howard brothers and between Marcus and Alberto.

It would be easy to overlook this film amidst the empty noise of summer blockbusters–I almost did–but don’t make this mistake. Hell or High Water is superb and it might just make you think there are people in Hollywood who still know how to make movies. 

Rob Weir

* The movie’s fictional setting is West Texas, but the real towns mentioned are actually in North Texas. Moreover, most of the film was actually filmed in Clovis, New Mexico—presumably because of tax breaks not available in Texas, which is it’s own ironic (pathetic?) commentary of the film’s subject matter.

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