When I left the theater, I stopped to eat at Golden Corral and sat down with a plate full of buffet food. Just like that, a man in a cowboy came by and sat at the table beside me. I had to pinch myself to make me believe I wasn’t still in west Texas.
John Gardner, the writer, used to say that what we do when we tell stories is create fictional dreams. When those dreams are perfectly seamless and we don’t wake up easily, they’re great dreams, great stories. Taylor Sheridan, we might say, "wrote hisself a winner in Hell or High Water" because sure as anything, I was taken, even though the only time I’ve been to west Texas was in that movie. But I think I was there.
Hell or High Water is two stories really. One of them features a pair of badly strapped brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster). Tanner’s an ex-con, Toby not; but together they determine the only way to keep the bank from the hardscrabble family ranch is to pay off the bills with the bank’s own money. Like the James Gang of old, they rob banks, little tiny ones in tiny Texas towns. So long as no one gets hurt, bank robbery is great sport; but you know somebody’s going to take a bullet, and eventually it happens.
But Hell or High Water isn’t a story about bank robberies. It’s a story about hard-pressed brothers, bad dudes who love each other. Hell or High Water succeeds because the story is about us and not just them, if that makes sense.
The other story features two Texas Rangers determined to grab whoever is doing the heists. The older of the two, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is just a short ride from retirement. His less seasoned sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who takes any number of ethnic slurs (he’s half Comanche and half Mexican), is clearly a student of the master.
An hour into the movie, I told myself the plot was masterful because it created four complex human characters without any regard for each other and placed them on two paths with an inevitable end. The four of them were going to cross—that much we knew even though no one in the theater had a clue as to what would go down.
That’s a plot that sparkles even in the dry heat of west Texas.
But it’s not plot that drives this film. It’s character. It’s us.
It may well be impossible for any of us to escape the imminence of Donald Trump these days. He not only takes the oxygen out of the room—he takes it out of the entire nation. I couldn’t help see him hover over the long drawn fields of dry grass because Toby and Tanner walk right out of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Dreams. They don’t dig coal like Vance’s kin, they run cattle, or should. But the brokenness, the horrifying dysfunction of their family (once, long ago, Tanner murdered their abusive old man) are right from the pages of J. D. Vance, a book that sold millions to Americans who wanted to understand who on earth could love Donald Trump. And why. Trump is here.
The real villains in Hell or High Water are not Toby and Tanner. Their motives are right out of Robin Hood because the evil here is, first of all, poverty that creates bank robbers who then became murderers. It’s the grinding circle of poverty as witnessable as that screeching windmill on the ranch. Toby tells Marcus that poverty is a circle he’s willing to die to end so his boys, his children, won’t stay in the bawling emptiness that left its stamp on him.
And Tanner? Even though he’ll kill to meet his ends, men die—and he does—because he loves his brother. The real villains are elsewhere.
Alberto and Marcus sit out on a store front on a dusty street in a hapless west Texas cow town awaiting a bank robbery that never happens. And they talk. And when they do, Alberto reminds Marcus that a couple of centuries earlier, his people, the Comanches, ran wild and free over all that land out there. It’s a bit of a rejoinder to Marcus’s endless ethnic slurs.
But then Alberto looks across the street at the little bank and says that Marcus’s people—the poor, white inhabitants of this woebegone world--are now being chased off themselves, just as the Comanches were, and he points out across the street at the bank, the new evil.
Hell or High Water is not without its politics. Poverty grinds away at our humanity, and its perpetrators, Alberto would have us believe, are the very, very rich. The desperation of poverty rides shotgun here, beginning to end. These are Trump people.
While the dramatic climax of Hell or High Water is accomplished with a big-game rifle, it’s the emotional climax that follows that takes your breath away. Marcus, now retired, finds Toby, who’s free by engineering his freedom as well as his legacy. Before he leaves home to find him, Marcus packs heat because the old ranger knows what Toby got away with and understands desperation.
When he finds him, Toby’s got a rifle, as well he should, guilty as he is.
And there they stand. Could well be, right then, another OK Corral. But when Toby’s ex-wife drives up in a dusty SUV and his boys tumble out, Marcus knows in an instant that this sad story and all of its blood is really all about family. Poverty, Toby says—“it’s a sickness is what it is. Passes from generation to generation and it affects everyone you know.” And then. “Not my boys.”
“The things we do for our kids, huh?” Marcus says, leaving, as if it’s only a cliché.
Gorgeously, at that final moment, Taylor Sheridan, the writer, fashions a brotherhood out of an old ranger and a bank robber.
Hell or High Water is rarity. It's one of those low-budget films that’s a treasure few will see because it’s not about spectacle at all, but about us. And, Lord a’mighty, what we want is not about us.