Hell or High Water is about sides. You pick a side or you’re assigned a side, whether it be financial, racial or maybe you just want to shoot someone.
Chris Pine plays Toby and Ben Foster plays Tanner. They rob banks.
The first shot of the film is a long one, tracking a middle-aged woman as she opens up a small bank in a small Texas town. Toby and Tanner follow her in and then proceed to sloppily rob the bank. We get the idea that they’re not all that good at this, but either way it works.
Their plan is a smart one: to rob small banks first thing in the morning so there will be fewer witnesses, if any. They also make a rule to only take small bills from the cash register that cannot be traced, and the small amount of cash also means they won’t attract the attention of big law enforcement agencies, only local cops.
One of these cops is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), on the verge of retirement, and his partner Alberto. They have trouble tracking down the bank robbers and spend most of their time bantering about retirement and trading insults, usually at Alberto’s expense and usually race-related.
Toby has carefully-constructed his plan and Tanner, an ex-con, is along for the ride. Tanner is a little unhinged, and one day he throws everything off schedule when he robs a bank while Toby is at a neighboring diner. While they get away, there are witnesses, allowing Marcus and Alberto to close in.
With the stolen money, the two brothers go to an Indian casino in Oklahoma where they can turn the cash into chips and then, after some light gambling, they can turn it into a check made out to the bank from which they stole the money.
Slowly we learn that after their mother’s death, her house is being foreclosed on by the same bank. Toby’s plan is to use the money to buy it back, knowing there is an oil gold-mine in the backyard that is worth much more money.
The cops have trouble tracking them down because they don’t fit the mold of the typical bank robber. The other law enforcement officers look at the small amount they steal and think it must be a tweaker or two, but Marcus knows these robbers are smart.
Marcus figures out the plan, and soon he and Alberto are heading to the branch they believe the robbers will hit next. This is the final stop, and due to some poor planning and execution, Toby and Tanner are forced to go into the bank in the middle of the day… on payday no less, meaning there are long lines and too many witnesses.
Because we’re in Texas, many of the people in line are carrying guns of their own, and a brief shootout ensues in which two men are killed. Toby and Tanner get away with the money, but onlookers, also armed, make sure they don’t get away unscathed.
Tanner lets Toby out at a designated drop spot and drive away in another car. By doing so, he allows Toby to get away. The cops follow Tanner to a deadly showdown in which Tanner shoots and kills Alberto, and Marcus shoots and kills Tanner.
Toby successfully buys back his home, and gives it to his ex-wife and son, making sure they never have to worry about money again.
In the final scene, Marcus visits Toby, letting him know that he knows Toby was involved. The rest of the police have determined that Toby had nothing to do with his brother’s crime, seeing as how there is no evidence of his involvement and he has no criminal record. Marcus tells him he’ll have to live with his decision every day for the rest of his life before driving off into an actual sunset.
Throughout the story, we spend equal time with the two brother sand the two cops. They have a similar banter, and this blurs the lines between police and criminal. We empathize with each side, and through conversation, each pairing draws a parallel between Native American genocide and the bank’s treatment of working-class people.
In the first shot of the film, the camera glides by a building with a simple question spray painted on it: Bailouts for the bank but nothing for returning soldiers?
People are unhappy with the banks, and many of them don’t mind them getting robbed.
I had a feeling of being in no man’s land while watching this movie. You’re between two sides, but you don’t immediately know which one to run to. You have the bank robbers and the police, first and foremost. Then you have Native Americans and the Europeans who pushed them off their lands.
This is demonstrated as we listen to Marcus exchange barbs with Alberto. Though we are meant to appreciate both characters, Marcus is ruthless in how he talks to Alberto. He makes racial joke after racial joke, and Alberto just puts up with it. The few times Alberto exchanges verbal fire, he does so with little impact, joking about Marcus’ old age or poor shooting skills.
So even in the current world, there are racial undercurrents. Sure Alberto isn’t being forced out of his home (like Toby is), but he has to put up with the ripple effect of Native American treatment way back when.
In the end, Alberto gets shot and killed, so things really don’t work out well for him. This gives Marcus the extra motivation he needs to kill Tanner and avenge his partner, but Alberto’s character in this film works as a metaphor for Native Americans in general. He exists, he has his own worldview, but he is put down to further the plot and help the white man, Marcus. Most films have characters like this, who only serve the story of our hero, but this film makes that trope a little more impactful.
You know what this movie feels like? It’s like you see two people fighting and then you sprint in and stop them, pushing them back. Sure, they’ve stopped fighting, but they’re not suddenly friends. Then they return to their houses and jobs across the street from each other, but they’re left staring daggers at one another. And you’re in the middle of the street, shrugging your shoulders, like “well I guess we’re good.” But we’re not.
Even at the end, with Marcus driving away, leaving Toby be, we know there’s still going to be a showdown at some point. Toby wants to protect his family and his home, so he can’t have Marcus revealing he robbed the bank, and Marcus can’t let the man who indirectly killed his partner go unharmed.
Tensions will inevitably boil up to the surface.
When people are scared, sometimes they act with violence or anger. I think that’s what this sets up. There are a bunch of people who have been hurt or have reason to live in fear, and so they arm themselves and wait for something to happen.
There’s even a scene with the two cops at a small restaurant in a very small town in which the server, an older woman, tells them exactly what they’re going to order. She mentions an out-of-towner who wanted to order something else, but she told him how it is. There’s us, the townsfolk, and there’s them, the outsiders. It’s always us vs. them, and in that way it’s very tribal.
This line of thinking can be personal, you vs. me or it can be societal, banks vs. working people.
And you know, while I watched this film, there was someone who ate their popcorn a little too loudly in the mostly empty theater, and all I could think was “you against me, buddy.”
Hell or High Water was directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan [who also wrote Sicario (2015)].