Warning: Spoilers ahead! It is recommended you do not read ahead unless you have seen this movie before or simply do not care about spoilers.
“What does this have to do with the history of country music?” Honestly? Not a whole lot. I just wanted to do something different.
Toward the end of Steve Earle’s “Billy Austin,” off his 1990 album, The Hard Way, the narrator sitting on death row asks his executioner, “can you still tell yourself sir that you’re better than I am?” That question or morality shines through in many different ways through music, films, musicals, books and other mediums. Rarely does it get better than on Hell or High Water.
The movie, written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by David Mackenzie and starring Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine, is a modern Western tale of two brothers who go on a bank robbing spree to help the family farm stay with the family. While the setting and plot revolve around old Western themes, the soundtrack also helped shine a bigger spotlight on artists such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Colter Wall and Scott H. Biram while also highlighting cool cuts by Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt among others.
The movie begins with violins playing over shots of a deserted, destroyed town (the entire film highlights the destruction of agrarian economy). From the get-go, the movie establishes its premise, and that opening is a good example of what you’ll get. This isn’t an “action” movie in the traditional sense. Truth be told there’s actually very little “good guy versus bad guy” mayhem going on, mostly because those lines are incredibly blurred.
As already established, the brothers don’t partake in these robberies because they want to. For the younger brother, Toby Howard (Pine), he’s doing it for his ex-wife and two sons. His older brother, Tanner (Foster) on the other hand lives for this adventure seeing as he’s an ex-convict.
Of course, because they’re seemingly so different on the surface, this leads to disagreements such as how Tanner wants to rob the one bank alone or how he wants to head to an alternative bank and messes up the plan during one of the final scenes. Still, the film never depicts their relationship as anything less than loving or gives the viewer any indication of tension between them.
Perhaps that just serves to highlight how absolutely nobody is perfect in this film. Even Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) throws several racial slurs toward his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), with Bridges’ thirst to fight retirement and stay in the game ultimately coming at the cost of his partner’s life. Even the Howard brothers’ lawyer is (objectively) shady.
It’s notable too that the two pairs are mirror opposites of each other. Hamilton is akin to Tanner with his reckless behavior and lack of care for the things he says at times (despite a loving nature of course). Toby is akin to Parker in the way they both stay quiet and do what they need to.
It’s questionable whether Tanner is even really “bad.” He went to jail for standing up to his abusive father (consequently costing his mother the ability to raise her two sons). Some might call that an admirable trait (and of course, “debatable” is the main motif here). There’s even a moment of humility when he visits his dead mother’s old bedside. Is his thirst for recklessness a crime? Did he really mean to kill that guy and that cop in the last bank scene or was it the only option left? There’s no answers given for a reason.
You could ask these same questions about Hamilton. Is he ultimately the reason his partner died or was it just part of the job? Is he right for still wanting vengeance for Parker’s death while Toby makes peace with it?
A common criticism this movie receives is in its pacing, but again, fast-paced action isn’t this movie’s goal. It’s meant to draw out that slow decay of right and wrong, something that’s impeccable for a movie that, on the surface, broadly sketches the scenes in an obvious way (robbing banks is wrong and fighting crime is good, but whose side are you on in this movie?). There’s even a scene where Hamilton and Parker run into a cowboy herding cattle away from danger. Here we have an obviously innocent cowboy who ends up worse off than Toby by the end. Everything is shot for a specific reason.
On that note, some of the shots throughout the movie are excellently done as well. From the time that poor lady opens the door to unlock the bank in what appears to just be a mundane scene quickly turns the tides when the brothers appear from behind the corner to stir up trouble. Of course too, Hamilton just has to get one last racist remark through to his partner before his partner next to him gets a hole in the head.
Given that it’s ultimately an updated Western, themes of loneliness are apparent as well. Beyond the obvious Toby and Hamilton who are lonely now without their partners, Toby is even lonelier because the same kids he’s trying to save aren’t kids he can be around all that much. He’s left with nothing essentially other than a house he rents. His ex-wife still hates him by the end despite now owning the ranch her ex-husband “worked” to keep. For Hamilton, retirement just equates to endless boredom, frustration and revenge for him rather than enjoyment.
What about too the feeling of just losing the only people you can trust? The bank may have helped keep Tony’s secret by the end, but they’re the exact reason he started his life of crime in the first place. Even the Howard brothers never act scared. They know what they’re getting into. Toby warns his son that he probably won’t be around much longer (since he thought he was going to jail). Tanner fights the police with crazed confidence rather than fear. Ultimately the film goes to great lengths to show what we’ll do for others if we wouldn’t necessarily care to do it for ourselves. Even Toby says by the end that he’s always been poor. His quest was for his boys.
The final scene where Toby and Hamilton confront each other, as with a multitude of movies, can be interpreted many different ways. From my perspective, I see their ultimate decision to “continue the conversation another time” as the perfect symbol for what right and wrong really is. It’ll never be solved because it simply can’t be. Even things that are apparently one or the other on the surface can easily be twisted given the situation and you don’t know by the end who you’d want to “win” that standoff anyway.
If you had to fault the film for anything, the casino scene does plod on with little to no meaning even if it allows us to hear the Colter Wall song, “Sleeping On The Blacktop” and establish why Toby returns later on in the film. There’s also the fact that some of the characters fit into a typecast, traditional mold seen in other movies such as Ranger Hamilton (an old cop who doesn’t want to give in just yet).
Ultimately though, Hell or High Water is simply near masterpiece level. The pacing is excellent, the characters are engaging (if predictable) and the onion-like plot with its many layers adds a natural suspense to the movie.
The best scene though is of course when Tanner sings Waylon Jennings’ “You Asked Me To.” That’s not up for debate.