Hell or High Water begins with an impressive long take depicting the tense moments before Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob the first of multiple West Texas banks. Look carefully and you'll notice some graffiti that reads, "13 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us." Throughout this sharp and sometimes violent genre film, similar signs of protest play an important role in communicating a collective rage felt toward the financial industry.
Even the crimes themselves can be construed as an act of protest: Toby and Tanner steal from the banks in order to pay off a shady loan that will strip them of their family farm, a dry stretch of land where oil has been recently discovered. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are called in to investigate the string of crimes, but it's clear the lawmen share a similar disdain for bankers. Spotting the manager at one recently robbed branch, Marcus states, "Now that looks like a man who would foreclose on a house."
Scottish director David Mackenzie and Birmingham sat down with CityBeat while visiting San Diego for a press tour to discuss these ideas and more. Mackenzie acknowledges the film's striking anger toward corrupt financial practices and policies that help perpetuate disenfranchisement and disillusionment. "It's a recession-era movie in all sorts of ways," he says. "The economic climate is absolutely central to the themes of the film, and we tried to evoke the outlaw movies released in the 1930s."
Yet Hell or High Water feels closer in spirit to a Western. Expansive horizons and vacant buildings stretch for miles. Many scenes heavily feature worn out details of cowboy iconography. The minor characters help solidify what Mackenzie calls the "expression of Texas," a combination of frustration, anger and humor toward the contradictions of modern life.
These feelings are not limited to white characters. Alberto, who is mixed-race Mexican/Comanche, is acutely aware of the challenges facing Texans of all ethnicities. He attempts to discuss these issues with Marcus, but their strained dynamic is dominated by racial jabs and doesn't allow for deep reflection. "Ultimately it's an exploration of how these men communicate, and the difficulty they face along the way," says Birmingham.
He continues: "I wanted to be a part of this project because it featured a Native character in contemporary times. I think it's important for us to be represented. I'm still surprised when people think Native Americans are just a thing of history and the past and they don't exist anymore."
Among the many other social topics, Mackenzie grapples with the absurdity of conceal carry laws in the film's climax, a Wild Bunch-esque shootout where locals try to enact their own brand of justice. "As an outsider I'm not trying to comment on race, corporate greed or gun culture, but more asking questions about how these hot button issues continue to impact people in the United States," he says. "This was an opportunity to make a movie about contemporary America, and some of the open wounds that still exist."
Hell or High Water, which opens Friday, Aug. 12, is the rare genre film that manages to be socially relevant and exciting. Pine anchors the story with sobering resilience and humanity, while Foster's volatile ex-con embraces his inner Hyde to ensure the family's future. They both come to represent a split personality of America's current working class fed up with the cycles of generational poverty.
Stitched in between the shootouts and standoffs are a number of quiet sequences set on various front porches. Here, characters laugh, drink a beer and stare off into the distance. "Sharing in these kinds of moments is something specifically Texan," Mackenzie notes. Yet silently reflecting only offers so much respite in times of such glaring inequality. Hell or High Water examines the cost (and possible necessity) of taking matters into your own hands.