Here at the Maccabee Society we love our Westerns such as Liberty Valance, Slow West, or my own Top Ten Western picks. Although this summer’s Hell or High Water has a contemporary setting, its storyline is a true Western through and through.
Directed by David McKenzie and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, the film takes place in West Texas and is about a divorced father’s efforts to save his family ranch. Toby Howard (Pine) hasn’t seen his two boys in over a year, he is in arrears with his child support, and the ranch that his recently deceased mother left him is going to be foreclosed on by the bank unless he can pay off the mortgage and the back property taxes. He has to raise the money in a week since an oil company has found oil on the ranch and thus both Toby and the bank want the land.
To raise the money and to spite that bank, Toby enlists the help of his ex-con brother, Tanner (Foster), to help him rob every branch of the bank that holds the mortgage to his ranch. Tanner, who in fact served 10 years in jail for bank robbery, is a wise cracking and impulsive person who is nonetheless a loyal and caring older brother. The two start by hitting small town banks at their slowest times, which eventually draws the attention of two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Played by Bridges and is basically a cleaned up and more respectable version of Rooster Cogburn from the Coen Brothers’ True Grit) and his partner Alberto Parker. After looking at the crime scenes and seeing what kind of bills the robbers took Marcus, who is a week away from retiring, figures out what the two are doing and where they are most likely to strike next.
Meanwhile, Toby and Tanner head for what would have been called in the old Westerns “the Nations”, to launder their money by buying and cashing in chips at a Native American-run casino in Oklahoma. Having almost all the money they need, they decide to rob two more banks, but this time they take two cars to elude pursuit. However, when they arrive at the first one in the morning they discover that the branch has closed up shop, and so head for the other one. On the way to there, Tanner realizes that they will not get enough money at the remaining bank, and decide to go to a bigger city branch. Marcus and Alberto, who were waiting all night outside the other remaining branch office in a small town, figure out where they are going and head out for the bigger branch.
Toby and Tanner leave one car outside of town, and head for the bank driving a pick-up truck. By the time they get there, the bank it is already very busy and this time gun fire breaks out as Tanner shoots a guard and a conceal and carry patron who tries to stop the brothers. The two run out of the bank and the town, as angry citizens fire at them and even pursue them. Tanner scares the pursuing “posse” by firing at them with an automatic rifle he had stashed in his truck, and then tells Toby to take the other vehicle so he can get to the bank on time with the money. In what is the most moving scene in the movie, Toby knows that Tanner is staying behind to draw the authorities away from him and that he will not see his brother alive again. They both say they love each other and go their separate ways.
Tanner evades the police and the Rangers, and even kills Alberto with a rifle shot, but is eventually killed by Marcus. Toby makes it to the bank on time and settles his financial affairs, much to the bank president’s consternation.
In the last scene of the movie we see Marcus driving up to Toby’s ranch which is dotted with oil derricks and is in much better shape than it had been earlier in the movie. Marcus tells Toby that he now knows that he was the brains behind the all the robberies and that he holds him responsible for his partner’s death and all the other people that were killed in their robberies. Toby says he did it to end the brutal cycle of poverty that had plagued his family for a long time, but Marcus is unmoved.
In what has got to be one of the quietest “showdowns” in a Western film, the two hint that they could just settle their affairs right then and there, as both of them are armed. However, his ex wife and two boys drive up, and from them we learn that Toby just works on the ranch which is now in a trust in his boys’ names. Marcus tells Toby that he may have secured a future for his kids, but what he did will haunt him the rest of his life. Something apparently Toby is willing to live with.
This is a Man’s Tale
In my article about my Top Ten Western movie picks, I spoke about how the American Western genre grew out of a mixing of the Spanish and Scotch-Irish literary traditions, with the lion’s share of influence coming from the works of Sir Walter Scott, who was widely read in the antebellum South. Scott’s stories such as Rob Roy or his Waverly series, exemplify the characteristics that we have come to expect from a Western: an independent-minded hero who is loyal to kin, distrustful of outside authority disrupting an established way of life that he has forged with his own code of honor. This is the anti or tragic hero that many a man has wished to be (and sometimes are) in real life and is why characters such as Don Corleone or even Walter White are so popular. Deep within us, these are the sorts of men that we give ourselves permission to respect even if we deplore what they do. To us they appear to be the bitter-sweet, yet still palatable, mean between the alpha and the omega male, between psychological impotence and virility, and of course between respectability and anonymity.
In Hell or High Water we see an economically depressed Texan landscape dotted with signs that offer debt relief. It is filled with people who are struggling to survive in a world where bank robbers are small-time hoods compared to a banking system that has been institutionalized by interests that are far removed from the people they were originally set up to serve. Toby himself describes the multi-generational poverty that his family has endured, as a “disease” that he was willing to risk everything in order to alleviate it. Of course we realize this movie is just a work of fiction and that most bank robbers are just base opportunists, but the whole reason this kind of storyline resonates with men is because it offers them a way to indulge their desire for a sense of self-mastery in their lives. Mastery in a world that is bent on gelding such determined assertiveness to achieve something as simple as providing for one’s family and passing on a legacy that will outlast our short lives.
Which leads to the other moving aspect of the film, in that it vividly but correctly portrays the traditional male mode of feeling. In our contemporary culture, there is a very silly but sinister notion that all the psychological pathologies men suffer from, such as depression, substance abuse, and even a higher suicide rate, could be assuaged if men weren’t so, well…manly. If men took a more feminine approach to their feelings they would have a more balanced and fulfilling life. Well as John Wayne as Ethan Edwards said in The Searchers, “That’ll be the day!”
The film exemplifies what many men know but are loathe to admit, which is that it is not the parade of emotions that we are perfectly capable of experiencing and understanding that scare us. It is the notion that the emotional highs and lows in our lives are just accoutrements on a character that we grimly fear is fixed. In short, what many men worry about is that outside of receiving the divine grace to transform our lives to our proper ends, we will in fact be destined to be creatures of habit and slaves to our desire for comfort over the duties that go along with growing into mature men.
None of the men portrayed in the movie have any illusions about who they are and what they are or aren’t capable of, and yet in the end all of them manage to rise above their faults for the sake of someone else. Toby knows he can’t be the kind of father and husband he wanted to be but he sacrifices his own desire for gain (albeit illegally) for the sake of ensuring a better life for his boys. Tanner knows he is nothing but a crook, beginning with the killing of his physically abusive father which he made to look like a “hunting accident”, yet there are many scenes in the movie where he is willing to give his all to help his younger brother. As for Marcus, he mercilessly belittles his half-Mexican, half-Native partner Alberto with one racial or religious slur after another. However at the movie’s end, the are still partners and they still share a bond to work together, including Marcus weeping bitterly and avenging Alberto’s death when he was shot by Tanner.
Lastly, I would say that the movie is also a pleasure to watch. Although it takes place in Texas, apparently all the shooting was done where a lot of other Western films such as Appaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma were filmed, in New Mexico. So the scenery and cinematography are magnificent. Moreover the soundtrack provides a morose yet very fitting compliment to this moving story, by such greats as Chris Stapleton, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Waylon Jennings.
The film is rated R for pervasive swearing, gun violence, and a blurred sexual encounter in the background.