Two brothers, one responsible and the other a loose cannon, rob West Texas banks for a noble cause. A detective on his last case before retirement knows they’ll make a mistake, and he will be there if they do.
If this sounds like the plot of countless Western heist movies, that’s because it is. It is also the plot of Hell or High Water, currently playing at Images Cinema in Williamstown. Yet Hell or High Water stands out as one of the finest films of the fall despite its familiar plot. The first key to the movie’s success is its awareness that its plot is far from original. Because of this, the audience is spared from sitting through a predictable opening act and the film begins with the brothers’ first bank robbery. Thirty minutes into the film, I was enjoying Hell or High Water, as it was clearly a well-made movie, but not nearly enough that I would have any desire to watch it again. However, the film builds slowly, developing its characters fully and using their stories as microcosms for far bigger issues. Details that would often be revealed immediately in a film of a similar style, such as why these two brothers are robbing banks, are left untouched for much of the film. The movie’s awareness of its common narrative is one of the subtle elements that allows it to stand out.
One of the most easily noticeable aspects of Hell or High Water is the quality of the acting. The always-excellent Jeff Bridges turns in an especially strong performance as detective Marcus Hamilton. Ben Foster plays ex-con Tanner Howard alongside Chris Pine of Star Trek, who makes the most of his opportunity in a more serious role as Toby Howard. The music is handled by Nick Cave, who, for those unfamiliar with his band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, recently released one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of 2016, the haunting-yet-beautiful Skeleton Tree. The score of Hell or High Water will not be talked about as much as its acting performances, but is no less critical to the success of the film. Though set in Texas, the movie was actually shot in New Mexico and makes full use of the beautiful landscape throughout the film. Hell or High Water rarely, if ever, missteps in terms of its quality of filmmaking.
This much is clearer early in the film. But while technical soundness makes for a good film, it does not guarantee a great one. Hell or High Water reaches this level because it has an ambitious yet subtle message embedded within its familiar heist plot. Hell or High Water shows an America that is changing. The white, working-class people in Hell or High Water know that the country is shifting and feel that it is no longer an America that they own. Corporations, banks and capitalism have come for their way of life, and their fight will end in inevitable defeat. Hell or High Water goes a step further though. Without completely undercutting the struggle of these people being left behind in 21st-century America, the movie also asserts that these people had no birthright to America in the first place. Through the inclusion of several Native American characters, Hell or High Water hypothesizes that the working-class whites upset about losing their America were once the evil and powerful forces that took a country away from someone else. Any wrongs and injustices done to them are the same wrongs and injustices imposed on Native Americans centuries ago but conveniently forgotten now that they are on the losing side. This creates a layer of complexity and thought about the changing class structure of America and the darker sides of its history that is seen in very few films, let alone films about bank robbers. As a viewer, you still root for the Howard brothers to prevail against the bank, the faceless representation of corporate America in Hell or High Water. But this is not a movie in which anybody truly wins.
Hell or High Water brings these issues back down to the familial level as well. In a scene that easily could have devolved into a series of clichés, Chris Pine’s character, Toby, tells his son not to grow up to be like him. In response, his son, still in high school, points out that Toby just gave him a beer. Drink the beer or don’t be like you — which is it? This contradiction is what gives the familial relationships in Hell or High Water so much power. Toby Howard is torn, since there are aspects of his family that he wants to erase forever, yet he is unsure how to do this without leaving behind the identity that makes it family in the first place. Sometimes this complexity is verbalized in the dialogue. Other times, brief shots of the two brothers doing seemingly little things speak volumes about their relationship and make the viewer consider the film’s stance on family. Hell or High Water ambitiously explores these micro- and macro-level issues and merges them to create a powerful narrative. Combined with quality filmmaking and acting, this story makes Hell or High Water one of the fall’s best movies.