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Film review: Hell or High Water


Hell or High Water has garnered a magisterial 88 on Metacritic with just about every critic fawning over this tale of two West Texas bank robbers determined to save the family farm from the big bad bankers about to foreclose on their property. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s dilemma was how far should he go in humanizing his anti-heroes without ending up glorifying them. To my mind, he went a little too far. Perhaps there are shades here of Arthur Penn’s sleek hagiography, Bonnie and Clyde, that placed two odious Depression era criminals on an undeserving pedestal.

Director David Mackenzie along with Sheridan have set their tale of the two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), in a contemporary milieu. Tanner is the “real” criminal here, having spent significant time in the slammer, and is properly depicted as what the general public would probably refer to as “scary.” Nonetheless, the film’s scenarists are not averse to also depicting Tanner as somewhat noble, especially when he sacrifices himself during a high-speed chase and subsequent shootout with the police, in order to save his brother.

Toby, on the other hand, has no criminal record, but allegedly has an excuse for planning the bank robberies and joining his brother in these nefarious acts, which culminate in the death of a bank guard and armed citizen, during the last holdup. It seems that the Texas Midlands bank won’t give Toby a break and is about to foreclose on his farm, which is now worth a lot more since oil has been found on the property. Good guy Toby wants to leave the farm to his children since he has known nothing but poverty growing up.

The twist here is the way in which Toby plans his robberies. The brothers only steal cash from the cashier’s drawers, avoiding exploding dye packs and serial numbers which can be traced. The getaway vehicles are buried at the farm and the cash is gathered at a popular casino, which inspired popular sites like, and exchanged first for poker chips and then re-cashed for new currency. It’s iconic scenes like this that have in

If there’s any doubt that the film’s scenarists have unjustifiably turned Toby into a “noble savage” of sorts, his underlying brute nature is highlighted in a fight against a miscreant at a gas station. But note that Toby (unlike Tanner who shoots innocent people), only fights creeps who deserve a good whipping.

There is a sub-plot here which involves the Texas Rangers who are chasing the so-called bad guys. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, partnered with Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), his half Mexican, Native-American deputy. Most of their interactions consist of Marcus making bigoted jokes at Alberto’s expense but his easy-going partner plays along since he knows that his boss is really a good guy at heart. Sympathy for the bad guys becomes more apparent when a waitress at a diner rebuffs the lawmen, refusing to allow them to examine the large cash tip Toby left for her minutes before making his exit.

Marcus and Alberto really don’t have much to do until the end of Act 2 where Tanner flees on foot on top of a mountainside, where he engages in a gunfight with the Rangers. Tanner shoots Alberto dead and Marcus in turns finishes off Tanner. Only some of the earlier bank robbery scenes rival the climactic scene with Tanner in terms of gripping action. The rest of Hell or High Water primarily consists of a series of moderately interesting but lugubrious conversations, highlighting the anti-capitalist themes.

The denouement features one further disappointing conversation where Marcus seeks to uncover Toby’s motivations for getting involved in criminal activities. Since we’ve already found out what was motivating Toby, his explanation to Marcus is rather anti-climactic.

Despite Toby’s harsh circumstances growing up, nothing seems to justify his decision to rob the banks where innocent people are killed. But if you listen to Mackenzie and Sheridan, Toby gets a free pass and is now permitted to deed the family farm to his children, far clear from the bar of justice. Hell or High Water is highly atmospheric, featuring good performances from all involved, but the overarching moral stance leaves much to be desired.