Toby Howard (Chris Pine) teams up with his ne’er-do-well ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to take down a series of small scores at a local chain of banks in Texas. Hot on their heels are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The Howards are trying to raise capital to save the family farm; in classic “cops and robbers” fashion, the Rangers are trying to stop them.
Just beyond, or perhaps just behind, the cat-and-mouse game there is an underlying sense of injustice and inequality: As the two pairs of characters travel through the West Texas highways and byways, the background betrays a land that the recovery never reached. Scrapyards dot the sides of the road, symbolic graveyards for dashed dreams. Shuttered Shell stations, marquees outside of businesses with “CLOSED” stamped on them, signs promising “debt relief” and “quick cash now”: This is the landscape the Howard boys are working in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find some moral support from the locals. No one joins them in their shootouts. But no one at a local diner seems too perturbed by the duo getting away with a modest score from the bank next door, either — they’ve seen too many of their friends and neighbors lose their houses.
Even Ranger Marcus has a wry sense of humor about having to stick up for the bankers: “Ah, that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house,” he drawls as a bank manager walks by after one of the robberies. The tone is set in the film’s opening moments: “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” claims some graffiti near the first bank that gets hit.
“Hell or High Water” is the sort of film that Donald Trump supporters might love, were they to give it a chance. In addition to the economic turbulence and the idea that the heartland is slipping away, one crooked banker at a time, Marcus and Alberto engage in very un-PC banter. The elderly white cop ribs Alberto about his Indian and Mexican heritage, while the younger man pushes right back, cracking wise about Marcus’s age and impending retirement. It captures a very specific brand of Middle American camaraderie and anxiety, one that hasn’t shown up too much on the big screen recently.
Jeff Nichols, the director of “Mud,” “Take Shelter” and “Midnight Special,” has been the most consistent mainstream chronicler of the white working class in recent years, an undercurrent of economic anxiety swirling just below the surface of all these films. But these are portraits of a people who have long lived on the edge: lower-middle-class to lower-class folks who have always struggled to save up for a family vacation or a needed surgery, as in “Take Shelter,” or merely put food on the table, as in “Mud.” They’re not necessarily tied to the nation’s recent woes.
Andrew Dominik took the financial collapse and the bank bailouts and used them as the central metaphor for economic collapse in his 2012 film, “Killing Them Softly.” The action — and the general incompetence of most everyone involved — takes place as George W. Bush and Barack Obama preach about the idea of America even as regular citizens suffer while their wealthy, connected betters cash in. Unsure that this lack of subtlety had failed to drive the point home, Dominik has star Brad Pitt spell it out in a closing speech: “This guy [pointing to Obama, speaking on a TV in the background] wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America. And in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now [expletive] pay me.”
“The Dark Knight Rises” warned of what might happen if such economic anxieties as are at play in “Hell or High Water” were allowed to fester. While the wealthy throw swanky parties and the politicians ignore the pleas of the populace, a generation of unemployable young people literally goes underground to work for the faux-populist Bane (Tom Hardy). After attacking Wall Street, Bane captures the imagination of the rest of the underclass by denouncing “myths of opportunity” and asking them to tear down the system. For some reason, he feels strangely familiar this election season.
A handful of movies has dealt directly with the subprime mortgage collapse and its fallout, of course: “99 Homes,” about a guy buying up foreclosed homes, and “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’s book about the crash, spring to mind. Jodie Foster and George Clooney’s surprisingly entertaining “Money Monster” centered on a man who felt cheated out of his life savings after an investment went south thanks to the criminal behavior of an untouchable executive.
But these films, along with “Killing Them Softly,” all feel a bit on-the-nose in a way that “Hell or High Water” never does. And for that reason, if no other, it could be the first masterpiece about the recent American economy.