Friday, September 23, 2016

Hell or High Water

It has been a while since I have paid money to see a "western"-style crime film, but Hell or High water was well worth the wait - and the money. The movie follows two down-and-out West Texas brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of small-scale robberies against branches of a Texas Bank. Toby, a divorced father of two sons, has come up with this plan to pay off the mortgage and avoid foreclosure on their recently dead mother's ranch - a ranch which just happens to have oil on it - and then leave it to his sons, so that they can have a better life than he and his brother and their mother did. At one point he powerfully likens poverty to a disease passed on from generation to generation. 

Toby's plan is actually quite clever. They only steal loose cash in the cashiers' drawers. Then they exchange it for gambling chips at a casino, which they then turn back in for a check, which can masquerade as gambling winnings. His biggest problem, however, is his hot-headed older brother, recently out of prison, who complicates the plan by taking excessive risks, which eventually lead (abetted by the ambient gun culture) to wider confrontations and eventual killings. Clearly Toby is not a killer by inclination, whereas Tanner seems to find it all quite exciting.

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his half-Hispanic, half native American partner, are on their trail. Marcus, more than anyone else, seems to figure out the pattern to the robberies and so correctly guesses the final target.The various relationships and everyone's various interactions highlight the depressing lives and socio-economic conditions of the rural poor. That is what makes the brothers' plight somewhat sympathetic, despite their criminality. Toby in particular comes across as a sympathetic character. Needless to say, no one has a good word to say about the ultimate villain - the bank! Indeed, one telling scene is when Marcus asks some men in a diner across the street from a just-robbed bank, "Y'all been here for a while?" and gets the answer, "Long enough to watch a bank get robbed that's been robbing me for thirty years." That the system is malevolently stacked against them seems to be the common consciousness shared by all - except, of course, the villains who run the bank.

At the end, Tanner has been killed by Marcus, but no one has been able to pin anything on Toby, who has successfully executed his plan, saved the family ranch (with tis oil), set up a trust for his sons, and turned over the property to his family. Now retired, Marcus can't quite let go of the case (which cost his partner his life) and confronts Toby at the ranch. Marcus tries to figure out exactly why Toby did it and is surprised to realize that Toby himself has given everything away to his sons. They part, both mutually scarred, probably forever, by the experience.

In a year when American society seems to be rediscovering the plight of the poor white working class, this film sensitively highlights the socio-economic structures (institutionally represented by the banks) that have worked against the poor - generation after generation - but without sugar-coating the family dysfunction and outright pathology that increasingly accompany many of those lives.

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