Hell or High Water

The men and women in Hell or High Water are open. They tell each other what they are about and why. The only thing they conceal is the evidence of their misdeeds, and they only do that, because they can’t be convicted if there’s no evidence. The law of the land—lowercase “l,” we’re not working with the Eternal here—is the real tyrant, because the law is a tool of the people in power, and the people in power are only in power because they took that power from someone else long ago. These open men and women on the West Texas plains are trying to take power back however they can, chiefly, by making someone else stare down the barrel of a gun, by trusting each other’s greed more than their goodness, and by being true to blood above all.

Yes, Hell or High Water is a Western, or rather it would be if it was set a hundred and fifty years earlier rather than in the present day. I suppose that means it has a Western flavor. It borrows the tropes – the landscape, shoot outs, bank robbers, contemporized cowboys and indians, the importance of family, and the expulsion of the man of violence even though without him the day would never have been saved.

Hell or High Water has the salt, but it uses it for different purposes than the Westerns we know. Rather than being a land of opportunity, the West in this movie is a land of opportunity lost. Westward Expansion has long since ended. Now we’re facing Western Recession. And everyone is a little more desperate for it. The story’s brother-bandits are robbing banks for a purpose we don’t learn for most of the movie, though it has something to do with that graffiti we see at the beginning of the film that states, “I served three tours in Iraq. Where’s my bailout?”

Hell or High Water is a vast film. Each act feels like an entire movie all on its own. Director David Mackenzie allows his film a silence that comes across as wisdom of the old variety, the kind that’s earned by a lifetime of sitting, staring at the horizon, and contemplating your place upon it. Hell or High Water is a fine follow-up to his 2013 film Starred Up, a prison drama that also intermingles place and character to such a degree, you have trouble telling them apart. Writer Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, understands that more is said by saying the single word that needs saying, or the action that needs doing, rather than the thousand others that don’t. Editor Jake Roberts, who also edited last year’s Brooklyn, lets emotions dictate this film’s pace rather than any assumed need for propulsive action.

And I haven’t even mentioned the cast yet – Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, and Jeff Daniels to start, and especially Katy Mixon, who steals the movie in two small scenes. Everyone is excellent, giving just enough when they could easily go too far and become caricatures of West Texans. They’re as regional as characters in a Coen brothers movie, but their world is more real, so they are as well.

This line Hell or High Water sketches between law and Law is an interesting one. The characters are obeying a Law of Justice that transcends the law of the land that governs them. That’s admirable in a movie that establishes its moral order early and teases out the ramifications throughout. But ultimately the characters have nothing to depend upon except themselves. The movie goes out of its way to marginalize religion. Okay. And it has the intellectual fortitude to admit the limitations of its moral order. But it also made me glad for a faith that casts anxiety about what we need now and what our children will need later upon a God greater than any man or woman, a true guaranteer of Justice, a Trust that will endure no matter how many laws men change. In Hell or High Water, the only guarantee is being on the cool end of a gun.

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Larsen on Film

We usually include a trailer at the bottom of our reviews, but all the trailers for this film reveal too much of its plot. – Editor