As Hollywood has expanded its global audience, one of the side effects has been a weakening of regional and cultural specificity in mass-market films. Because the biggest Hollywood productions must now play everywhere and appeal to everyone, they are limited in their ability to depict any particular place, person, or time.
But Hell or High Water serves as a welcome antidote to Hollywood’s global dislocation. A moving and elegiac crime picture set on the West Texas border after the recession, it consists almost entirely of regional and cultural specifics. It’s a portrait of economic desperation rooted in a specific place and a specific time that also happens to be a thrilling heist film.
Hell or High Water expertly uses its setting to pace its story and evoke a feeling
The film’s first shot sets the scene, panning slowly through the dusty leftovers of a tiny town, its parking lots empty, its storefronts closed, three sad crosses painted on a battered strip mall wall. The camera follows an elderly sports car as it prowls down the street, its engine rumbling with reckless menace, and then as its inhabitants arrive at one of the few businesses that remains open, the local bank. They’re wearing masks. They have guns. You know what comes next.
In that opening shot is the movie in miniature: the emptiness and desolation of dying Texas border towns, barren of life and opportunity, and the desperate acts of its remaining residents. It’s a survey of their world, and a glimpse of how they choose to survive.
Directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water is impeccably shot, adopting a visual style that evinces the same rough-and-tumble practicality of its world. The heist scenes crackle with anger and uncertainty, and the chases and getaways move with frantic urgency, taking viewers along for the pulse-pounding ride. The action beats are exciting, but they also stress the anxiety and danger of these escapades, the fear of violence as well as of being caught; this is a movie that never forgets the risks.
But Mackenzie’s best work comes in between those high-stakes sequences, in the moments when the movie stops to breathe. Aided by the understated cinematography of Giles Nuttgens, Mackenzie captures the vast expanse of the Texas landscape — its big-sky sunsets and clouded horizons — with a kind of sorrowful respect, an almost tangible longing for a world lost to time.
It helps, too, that Hell or High Water never feels rushed. At an hour and 42 minutes, it’s not long, and its story is wonderfully economical. But many of the film’s shots and scenes have room to breathe, lingering on their subjects long enough to let you look around, to take in the scenery and absorb the feel of the place. It makes space for the viewer to settle in.
This is a bank robbery story that could only have been set in Texas
That’s part of how Hell or High Water helps you relate to its characters, all of whom are firmly rooted in place in terms of both history and character. The bank robbers are two brothers trying to raise funds to keep their mother’s farm from being taken by a bank: Toby (Chris Pine), a responsible divorced father, and Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con with a wild side and a cache of high-powered rifles.
Following their crime spree on the other side of the law are two Texas Rangers, the cranky Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his mixed-heritage partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), both of whom are, in their own ways, products of the particular slice of Texas in which they live and work.
Indeed, beyond its moody landscapes, the movie offers a marvelous catalog of Texas character and culture, from the country wit and wisdom of the dialogue to the televangelists on a motel TV to the delightful oddballs who populate the state’s banks, restaurants, and diners. One of the movie’s funniest, most charming scenes is a brief bit in which Marcus and Gil attempt to order from a particularly cantankerous waitress. It adds little to the plot, but it gives viewers another brief taste of their world.
More relevant to the story is the movie’s treatment of Texas gun culture, which it accepts in the same way its characters do — as a normal and ordinary part of small-town Southern life. It also turns out to be a consistent impediment to armed bank robbery, as well as an occasional spark for violence that might otherwise have been avoided.
The finale involves an impromptu band of gun-toting men in pickup trucks chasing Toby and Tanner from their final score, in a sequence that is both darkly funny and more than a little terrifying.
Put a different way, Hell or High Water makes its setting more than a pretty backdrop: This is a bank robbery story that could only have been set in Texas.
The film’s small town is a world unto itself
Hell or High Water is less interested in judging its characters and more interested in understanding them.
The movie never justifies the crimes Toby and Tanner commit, but it makes sure viewers understand how they justify their actions to themselves. As the pair drives through the state, the camera constantly cuts to the signs of economic decline: billboards advertising debt relief and quick home sales, and barren fields dotted with oil rigs, which the movie frames as the last viable part of the world.
Late in the movie, Toby sits down with his estranged son and warns him that he’s likely to hear about his father’s crimes. "Don’t be like me, son," he says, without ever quite apologizing for his actions. In a reservation casino, Tanner ends up in a brief standoff with a Comanche that concludes when he claims that the whole world is his enemy.
Mackenzie, working from a script by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, never denies the pair their agency: Hell or High Water makes clear that they are responsible for their actions, for the violence they commit and the damage they cause. And yet it also acknowledges that they have a point of view, a perspective on the world that makes sense, at least in their own eyes.
The film shows us that perspective by showing us their home, its people, its culture, its economy — and how all of those things define its inhabitants. As Hollywood goes blandly global, Hell or High Water offers a refreshingly local, regionally specific story that nevertheless reveals an entire world.