As most historians know, from 1934 to 1968 American cinema was more heavily censored than any other film industry in the western world. The Motion Picture Production Code, the fruit of a partnership between the major Hollywood studios and the Catholic Church, had strict rules about what we could, and could not see in movie theaters. There was to be no miscegenation, “licentious nudity” or profanity. You couldn’t “ridicule the clergy.” You couldn’t depict “scenes of actual childbirth” or “the illegal traffic in drugs.” Above all you couldn’t portray criminals in a sympathetic light or make a movie where “crime pays.”
(I don’t give away the ending, but there are spoilers.)
Hell or High Water is a great “pre-code” movie, maybe the first one I’ve seen in the modern era. Between 1930 and 1934, American cinema reflected the angry, almost revolutionary mood of the American people during Great Depression. Hell or High Water does the same thing for the “white working class” in 2016, for people still angry about the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bush/Obama bailout of Wall Street. Don’t get me wrong, Moonlight is a fine movie, but there’s a reason that Hell or High Water never stood a chance to win Best Picture. The pampered liberal elite that runs Hollywood was not about to put its stamp of approval on a movie that all but calls for guillotines, pitchforks and torches.
Hell or High Water begins at a Texas Midlands Bank in one of those desolate little towns made famous by Peter Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show. A teller arriving early in the morning to open up the doors, Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and Breaking Bad, is shoved inside by two men in ski masks. To her surprise, they don’t want the money in the vault, but only the loose bills collected from depositors the day before, a few thousand dollars, a fairly modest sum that hardly seems worth the risk of a long prison sentence. When the bank robbers, Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, take off their masks in their getaway car, we immediately begin to identify with the two men. They seem likable. They knock over another bank, then head home to their ranch out in the wastelands, where they bury the cars underneath a pile of dirt, and talk about their recently deceased mother. We learn that Tanner Howard, the elder of the two and the family black sheep, has spent time in jail for shooting their abusive father.
Hollywood being Hollywood, I suppose you can’t make a movie about a pair of sympathetic bank robbers without also including a pair of sympathetic police officers. Hell or High Water gives us two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton, an old Anglo nearing retirement played by Jeff Bridges as a combination of Deputy Dog and The Dude from the Big Lebowski, and Alberto Parker, who’s a half Mexican, half Comanche evangelical Christian who likes to watch TV preachers in between interrogating witnesses. Hamilton’s a half-hearted bigot but no fool. Parker’s convinced that the two men who knocked over the pair of Texas Midland Banks are simply methheads looking for their next fix. Hamilton’s not so sure. There’s a method in their madness, he insists, a reason they’ve declined to take the more easily traceable rolls of money from the vaults, and only targeted banks in small, out of the way towns with low foot traffic and poor security. In between genial ethnic slurs, Hamilton suggests that they stay the night in the local area, and stake out a few more Texas Midland Banks in small, decaying out of the way little towns. Parker, reluctantly, agrees.
After Toby and Tanner Howard stop off at a local Indian casino, exchange their stolen money for a stack of chips, play a few token hands of cards, then cash in the chips for two checks made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, we realize that Ranger Marcus Hamilton is onto something. There is a method to their amateurish methods, which we learn about in detail after they stop off at their lawyers. Years ago their mother had taken out a reverse mortgage on the family ranch. Later, her bank, not coincidentally Texas Midlands, started foreclosure proceedings on the land they had once believed next to worthless, but have subsequently realized contains enough oil to make Toby’s ex-wife, who he still owes child support, and two sons rich. They’ve just about stolen and laundered enough money to pay off their mother’s debt, and set their kids up for life. That they’re stealing money from the same bank that’s threatening to take property that’s been in the family for generations is not only class war. It’s poetic justice. One more robbery should put them over the top.
We all know what’s coming, a final showdown between the Howard brothers and Rangers Hamilton and Parker, but it’s the way the film executes the familiar plot that makes Hell or High Water one of the best films of 2016. Neither Hamilton nor Parker is exactly what you would call a “pig” or an enthusiastic enforcer for the American ruling class. They’re just doing their jobs. Similarly, neither Toby nor Tanner Howard has personal grievances against the police. They’re just doing what they have to do to keep the banks from getting hold of their family’s property. It’s the character of Tanner Howard, however, that makes Hell or High Water such a dangerous, explosive film. Tanner, who we’ve already learned has killed his abusive father, is the troubled, violent family black sheep. Toby Howard, in turn, is a cool headed, cerebral criminal mastermind. For the past few years, we’ve all been reading about violent, disgruntled white men who go on shooting sprees, and many of us, at least me, have always lamented how the typical mass shooter targets innocent people. If only we could direct that violent rage, not against people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but against the banks, the courts, the ruling class, their lawyers, and the police officers who defend their “privileges.”
That not only happens in Hell and High Water, Taylor Sheridan, the same writer who wrote the screenplay for Dennis Villeneuve’s film Sicario, grounds his conception of class war in the history of the white man’s genocide against native Americans. Tanner Howard, to be sure, is an Anglo, not an Indian or a Mexican, and perhaps Sheridan is engaging in a certain kind of “cultural appropriation,” but the underlying theme of Hell or High Water is that the European genocide against the Plains Indians has now taken on a new form, the corporate elite’s economic genocide of the white working class. “This town has lost its reason for existence,” the half Indian, half Mexican Parker tells Hamilton as they look out on a desolate, half populated row of abandoned factories and foreclosed houses. “One hundred and fifty years we owned all of this land,” he continues. “The white man came and took it away from us, and now the banks are taking it away from them.” Suddenly, an earlier scene, where Tanner had almost come to blows with a native American man in the Indian casino makes sense. “I’m a Comanche,” the man had said, glowering at Tanner. “That means I’m the enemy.” Tanner takes it all in stride. “Of what?” he asks. “Of everything,” the man responds. “That makes me a Comanche too,” Tanner nods, recognizing a brother in arms.
I began this review by labeling Hell or High Water “a great pre-code movie,” but I think the final shootout and the film’s ultimate resolution go beyond anything Hollywood tried in the early 1930s. It’s straight up class war, the suicidal rebel against the banks, the police, and a gang of enthusiastic Texas gun nuts who finally see an opportunity to “shoot a bad guy,” and wind up getting much more than they bargained for. Chris Pine’s final scene with Jeff Bridges spoke to me in a way few mainstream films do. “We’ve always been poor,” he said, revealing the true history of the “white working class” in American. “We’ve never had anything. That’s going to change for my boys.” Bridges, who hates Howard for what his brother did to his partner, but knows he’s been upstaged, can only seem to agree. He’s spent his life doing a job that no longer has any real meaning.
Final Note: If you’re a good looking bank robber and a chunky waitress flirts with you in the diner, always, always leave her a big tip. The life you save may be your own.