“The days of robbin’ banks and livin’ to spend the money are long gone. Long gone fer’ sure.”
So says Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. And truer words were never spoken. The modern technological age, what with its security cameras, constant social media alerts and ubiquitous smartphones, has all but made those old holdup high jinks of yesteryear extinct.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Such as the two old boys repeatedly robbing Midland Bank affiliates out in dust-blown stretches of Texas. And they’ve gotten away with it so far because the banks are reworking their security-camera systems—and because the thieves are only taking small bills from bank tellers’ drawers, not the bigger, traceable stacks of currency stored in the vaults.
Marcus’ partner, Alberto, thinks it’s all just dumb luck. But Marcus—who’s two weeks from retirement—isn’t so sure. By sticking to the bank drawers, the robbers have cleverly avoided dye packs, sequenced bills and the Feds. And it’s always early morning when they stage their raids in ghost town branches. Always wearing neutral ski-masks and sweat shirts.
Suffice it to say that the ol’ Ranger’s practiced nose is picking up a certain scent. These mysterious pistol-wavin’ banditos are working toward something bigger. He just needs to keep sniffin’, scratchin’ and lookin’ close.
In the meantime, brothers Toby and Tanner are sticking to a plan. They’re about to lose their recently deceased mother’s ranch to the very chain of banks they’re stealing from. It’ll take some $40,000 to pay back taxes and make everything square. And the two rangy robbers are thinking that it’d be a pretty sweet irony to pay the bank off with its own ill-gotten cash.
Not that older brother Tanner thinks they’ll get away with it. He’s ridden in this rodeo a few times, been in and out of jail. And he ain’t seen anyone get off scot-free yet. But he’s wild-eyed and quite literally insane enough that he just doesn’t care. He reckons it’ll just be crazy fun for a season.
But there’s a junction just up ahead. A place where those crazy-desperate Texas bank robbers and a crazy-as-a-fox Texas Ranger are bound to cross paths. And it’s likely that something’s gonna give, then and there.
‘Cause the days of robbin’ banks and livin’ to spend it are surely behind us.
Hell or High Water tries to plumb the morally murky depths of desperate men’s motivations. Obviously, the Tanner brothers’ robberies are immoral and illegal. But we’re also asked to consider how these men’s violent, “ends justify the means” choices are at least in part a response to greedy, heartless bankers who’ve plundered their family’s farm. Toby, in particular, wants to save it for his ex-wife and their sons.
There are other tug and pulls between right and wrong elsewhere in the film, too. For instance, Toby hands a beer to his older teen son while warning the young man not to be like him. The boy looks at his dad and says, “You tell me not to be like you, and you offer me a beer. Which is it?” Toby grins back and says, “Good boy.” Toby and Tanner also speak of their love for one another.
Though Marcus is no saint, he is dedicated to righting wrongs and pursuing justice, which is exactly what he does as he vigilantly attempts to identify and arrest the Tanner brothers.
We see crosses on some buildings. Marcus and Alberto listen to an evangelist on TV, but Marcus scoffs profanely at the “phony” preacher and his message. Alberto professes to being a Catholic.
In one scene, the camera focuses on Toby’s attempts at sleep in a shared hotel room as Tanner has boisterous sex with a naked woman (slightly out of focus) on a bed behind him.
Some women’s tops sport cleavage, and Tanner tucks a dollar into a female bank teller’s décolletage.
The backwater Texas world portrayed here is one that can erupt in bloody violence in a heartbeat. Short-triggered Tanner bashes people in the head and face with his fists and his pistol butt. In one case, a couple of town toughs start waving a gun around before Toby batters and pummels them—slamming one youth repeatedly with a car door. Tanner also roughly and sexually manhandles a young woman, obviously hurting her as he gropingly thrusts his hand below her waist (off camera).
Locals sometimes pull out their own hidden weapons and begin blasting wildly away at the robbers, too. Once, that results in Toby and Tanner shooting a bank customer and a bank guard in a bloody gunfight.
Two men are brutally, graphically murdered by high-powered rifle shots to the head. Tanner talks of shooting his father when he was younger. Marcus muses about the benefits of skipping retirement by getting into one last deadly firefight. Someone is shot and bleeds profusely, prompting him to wrap his gory wound with cloth and duct tape.
More than 20 f-words and a dozen s-words join a dozen or so exclamations of “b–ch” and a handful of uses each of “a–,” “h—,” “d–n” and “b–tard.” God’s name is combined with “d–n” five times.
Alberto puffs on an e-cigarette, while other characters smoke regular cigarettes occasionally. Beer and hard alcohol flow freely in the worlds of both crooks and cops.
Marcus regularly spits out racist statements about his long-time partner, Alberto (though often with a rib-nudging jokiness). Tanner and other locals make offensive, racially prejudiced comments, too. Some of them are more than happy to aid the brothers in their illegal pursuits.
Director David Mackenzie and crew have created a gritty modern-day Western they hope will scratch the movie itch for people looking for something other than space adventures or superhero battle royals. It’s packed with grizzled cowboy antiheroes and snappy, snarling dialogue. It’s paced at an even, keep-them-doggies-rolling clip. And it’s set in a current-day Texas landscape of dying towns and long tarmac roadways, a place where every passerby has at least one pistol tucked in his boot or belt.
Western motifs have been given a fresh coat of varnish, too. Hatred for the ranch-thieving bankers of yesteryear’s horse-operas has been restaged as a steely eyed revulsion for greedy one-percenters—those heartless suit-and-tie guys who ruthlessly squeeze average folks still hopelessly clinging to their small patch of dust and scrub grass.
Now, that may sound like a pic with potential. And indeed, Hell or High Water has a few memorable moments tucked in with its tobacco pouch. But that memorable stuff is as much negative as positive.
The Texas-twang dialogue here is rife with profanities and crudities. The sun-scorched cinematics get pretty bloody and brain-splattered by the last pulled trigger. Then there’s this film’s thorny tumbleweed of a worldview. It’s a mindset that flirts with the idea that stealing from the wealthy and killing lawmen can be rationalized as justice—and that a gun in your jeans ultimately outweighs anyone’s rules.
Toby just wants to save the farm for his family, he says. But he never really stops to fully count the cost of how his illegal activities might impact those he loves should his reckless and violent attempt to “solve” that problem fails. So whatever sympathy we might momentarily harbor for his family’s desperate plight ultimately takes a bullet by the time the credits of this postmodern Western finally roll.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.