Hell or High Water movie full length review - Brothers rob banks to save family farm
The last song articulates the film's "spirit of the outlaw.
" In this modern-age western the entire West Texas world is a bunch of outlaws: the banks whose usurious system would sweep the oil-rich ranch out from under the dead woman's grandsons, the diners who don't recognize the robbers, the trigger-happy customers who turn a heist into a slaughter, the waitress who resents losing the robber's $200 tip that she needs to keep a roof over her daughter's mortgaged head.
And so to the central quartet. Two brothers face off against two lawmen. Toby is the good son determined to improve the lot of his two abandoned sons and ex-wife by robbing the Texas Midland branches to get the money to pay off the Texas Midland reverse mortgage and back taxes. He recruits his wilder ex-con brother Tanner.
The brothers' bond bristles with insults, parallelling that between Sheriff Marcus and his Indian/Mexican deputy Alberto. Exulting in political incorrectness, Marcus teases Alberto about his ethnic background. In return Alberto razzes his senior about his looming retirement. In blind poetic justice, the wilder outlaw and the tamer lawman are both killed.
Though Toby and Marcus survive their success stays shadowed. In their last scene both appear dramatically cleaned-up, healthier versions of their earlier presentation. Marcus made it through a gun-happy society's law system to make retirement. Toby has ensured his sons' fortunes by passing on the oil-rich farm.
But neither man knows peace. As Marcus senses (or as a moral man needs to believe), Toby is haunted by his brother's death and the deaths of the bank-folk incidental to their robberies. He remains an outsider in his own family, coldly dismissed by his wife, kept at a proper distance by his more promising sons. Marcus remains trapped by the incompletely solved case. How can he prove Toby was the second robber? How did Toby plan it all and get away with it? And why? The depths of Marcus's grief and anger are suggested when he tells Toby of the large family Alberto left behind.
In the last scene Marcus gratefully accepts Toby's invitation to continue their conversation at his home in town. There they may find "peace." We're not told what that "peace" means for each of them, if either will get it, and how.
Perhaps Toby's "peace" would be avenging Tanner's death and dispatching the ex-sheriff's implicit threat to his scheme ? or making the final sacrifice for his sons and going down in gunfire. Perhaps Marcus's "peace" would be solving that last case and bringing the robber to justice ? or in his last shoot-out heroically escaping the torpor of retirement. It's a Mexican standoff.
In the last shot Marcus drives off, disappearing into the countryside as the camera drops to wheat level. That movement implies burial, as if an augur of the final shoot-out that even a modern-day Western sets us up to expect. But that reading is inflected by the reflection of a triangle of light on the left side of the screen. The light changes that burial to resurrection. Perhaps the two heroes' "peace" will therefore rather be putting the antagonistic past behind them and getting on with their lives.
That would make this a new age Western, which prefers a negotiated compromise over another shoot-out. That gives the men a sensitive, more female side, coherent with their later cleaned-up, more civilized look. That would also balance the tough flatness of the film's women, all consigned to the margin: Toby's hardened wife, the fleshy single-mom waitress who's drawn to him, his casino pickup, the waitress who for forty years has been serving up only t-bone steaks, the only option being peas or corn. Toby's courtly abstemiousness contrasts to Tanner's prostitute performing on the bed behind him.
The title comes from the lawyer's instruction: Come hell or high water the heroes have to get the cash to the bank to avoid the foreclosure. The absence of high water is evident in the arid Texas landscape and the tired bodies that move bent and broken and hopeless through it. Only an Eastern city slicker would order a trout in these parts.
As for the hell, it's in the people, helpless before the banks, hopeless in their cycle of generations of poverty, with only the rare opportunity to make the one score that may be too late for them but just might spring free their kids. This circle of hell might well be the Trump supporters, on the fringe of the economy and the law, so hopeless they'll bet it all on an irrational, even lunatic long-shot.