What does it mean to own land? That’s one of the questions at the heart of the gorgeous western Hell or High Water. In the film two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) scour the dry and lonesome West Texas landscape robbing multiple branches of the bank that’s threatening to foreclose on the family ranch after their mother died. On the surface, their cause seems righteous: familial morality in the face of heartless corporate greed, but as the story lingers on the moral lines smudge into the gray confines of the human condition. Complete moral dualism is an illusion, and every fight to secure something for your own family, your own tribe, can lead to unintended consequences for everyone.
“Hell or high water” is a poetic-sounding phrase born in mid-19th century America that means strong resolve to get something done in the face of all odds. This speaks to the determined focus of both the Howard brothers’ determination to get enough money from the banks to save their land and Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker to chase them down. It’s also the name for a clause found in many contracts, including mortgage contracts, that requires an agreement of payment no matter what.
Hell or High Water takes a dilemma relevant to recent U.S. economic history: the mortgage collapse, and brings it out of time, zapping it into a soul dizzying perspective. We can be outraged at a that problem affects us personally, in the moment, but that’s never the whole picture. Alberto Parker’s character exists in this script to offer a bit of that perspective. He’s half Mexican, half Native American, and this land that these white men are risking everything for was taken from Parker’s ancestors by invaders. We’re caught in the brutality of humanity’s history.
Toby survives, and his dream is fulfilled, no matter the cost. His brother has fallen, but he’s cheated the banks, he’s escaped the lawman, and he’s made a lucrative deal with the oilmen that will secure a financial future for his children. The last shot shows the oil rigs digging and slurping from the earth like hungry monsters, like insects feeding. This is their win, but they’ll inherit land and money that costs lives to obtain. If all goes to Toby’s plan, they’ll never know the true cost of their fortune. They’ll live on in the blissful ignorance that all of us live with to some degree. Even when we learn about humanity’s heartbreaking and brutal past in history books, we still hold the knowledge of it at a distance from the reality of it. We have to in order to go on, in order not to stall out completely, utterly overwhelmed by the true weight of the present we inherit.
The film also delves into the depths of male intimacy and relationships, exploring the beauty and despair of two people trying to figure out how to show affection for each other, how to etch out love by tracing around it with prodding jokes and weighty silences. The abandoned and hungry small-town landscapes and the haunting soundtrack flesh out the desperate beauty of this David Mackenzie directed and Taylor Sheridan written film.
Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens
Editing by Jake Roberts
Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
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