Hell or High Water

It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “Western,” because most of the time that term is used when a movie takes place during the late 19th century, when there were only horses for conveyance.  Are they still cowboys if they drive beat-up cars, as long as they have cattle on their property?

Two brothers, Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine, famous for being the latest Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” series) decide to go on a bank robbing spree.  For Tanner, who just got out of prison, the whole thing is a lark.  He loves seeing people’s reaction when he shoves a gun in their face, and he enjoys the thrill of taking something that isn’t his.  He’s an ex-con who has already spent 10 years in prison, but even if gets caught, he doesn’t intend to go back.  We viewers slowly realize that he intends to go out “death by cop,” though his younger brother Toby is slow to catch on.

Actually, Toby just doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a bank robber, anyway.  He doesn’t really want to do anyone any violence (promising himself that since that’s not his intent, it’s not going to happen).  Broke and divorced (which could describe a lot of single Dads out there), he feels that his sons have not only been taken away from him, but their mother has managed to keep them estranged from him, as well. (And yes, a lot of divorced Dads complain about that, as well.)  Toby’s spent the last several years caring for his ailing Mom, who owns a hardscrabble piece of land that the bank talked her into mortgaging, and now the vultures are circling with tax liens.  Toby asks Tanner for help, and Tanner is only too happy to oblige.  He’s smart enough to know that if you stick to small-town banks, and the loose bills that are in the cash drawers, then they won’t draw much attention, and won’t have marked bills in their possession.  And Tanner’s right about this.  But he didn’t count on a very persistent Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who’s very near retirement, but is not at all ready to coast into the dock.

            Marcus has a partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom he’s constantly bantering with---they continuously trade insults, and may secretly have some affection for each other behind all the bravado.  Same with the brothers, but they also argue constantly, and their decisions are not made smoothly.  But ironically, this makes them less predictable, as well, and harder to track.

            This movie has a great sense of humor, but it’s in a context of the quiet desperation of rural America, where businesses are closing down or struggling mightily not to, and where the local economy continues to spiral downward for lack of economic development.  But, as we viewers discover, small-town people can be crusty.  And they don’t appreciate being patronized or regarded as provincial.

            Can we root for the banditos?  Well, if so, it won’t be the first time.  It’s just that we almost hope that Scotty can beam up Captain Kirk before it’s too late.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                   Is any crime justifiable?

2)                  When have you sympathized with the motives of criminals?

3)                  When have you known someone close to retirement who refused to “play it safe”?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association