Hell or High Water


Hell or High Water is about two brothers in rural Texas who turn to robbing banks to save the family farm.

Toby is the younger brother, but the one who came up with the idea and who more or less is the brains of the operation. He has a clean police record—which helps in making him less of a suspect later—but from some things that are said it seems he’s really not so squeaky clean. But he’s someone who—while he’s evidently made his share of mistakes and done what he needed to do to survive sometimes difficult circumstances—has never turned to major crime until now.

Their mother has recently died, and Texas Midland Bank is set to foreclose on their farm shortly. Apparently the bank has been dishonest and exploitative toward the family, or at least Toby is convinced of this. The stakes are higher now because oil has recently been discovered on the property. Toby wants to come up with the necessary money to keep the farm, plus he wants to be able to pay the money he owes his ex-wife in accumulated alimony and child support. Though he rarely sees his kids, his plan is to save the farm and then put it in a trust for them, such that they (or their mother) cannot sell it, but they will be able to live comfortably off the oil money.

Tanner is the older brother. It is strongly implied that he, or both he and Toby, were abused by their father, that as a youth he shot and killed their father in retaliation, and that although she cooperated in covering it up by making it look like an accident, his mother never forgave him for that. Since then he has pursued a criminal lifestyle at least off and on; it sounds like he has spent perhaps 50% of his adult years behind bars.

His crimes did not include anything at the level of bank robbery, but he has at least a better grasp of such things than Toby, so he lends his personal experience to the equation. It also helps that—as we find out later—he had a cellmate who had robbed banks, and presumably they talked shop enough for him to have picked up some pointers.

I don’t think they’re splitting the money; it sounds like most or all of it is intended to go to Toby’s ex-wife and kids. So you kind of wonder what’s in it for Tanner, but he does seem to put some value on saving the family farm and helping Toby’s kids, who are after all his nephews. You get the sense, though, that as much as anything for him it’s about the adventure. Ever since his traumatic relationship with his father ended violently, he has seemingly been the reckless sort who sees his life as spiraling out of control toward a likely early end, and at least wants to enjoy the ride and allow himself to get crazy along the way.

So to Toby’s brains, he adds not only criminal experience but also audacity and guts, though the way he at times acts as a loose cannon makes it unclear whether on balance this helps or hurts them as bank robbers.

Toby insists—and Tanner mostly but not entirely goes along with this—that since their beef is with Texas Midland Bank they limit their robberies to branches of that bank.

Throughout the movie the brothers are being tracked by two Texas Rangers (kind of a state-level version of the FBI) who have been assigned to investigate the bank robberies. They are a couple of tough veteran cops, the older of which (Jeff Bridges) is just weeks away from retirement. (Bridges is quite good in the part, but every time he was on screen my mind kept going to “Man, the Dude really looks old!”)

The nature of their interaction is that the Bridges character constantly needles his partner, based on his being half Indian, and the partner tries to stay all business. (He’s also half Mexican, but as Bridges explains, he’ll get to that eventually when he runs out of Indian jokes, but that could be a while.) The partner never seems to particularly enjoy this good-natured ribbing, but he’s the type who would see objecting to it as a form of weakness, so he grimly tolerates it. In his taciturn way I suppose he does manifest some small degree of fondness for Bridges, and Bridges clearly likes him.

They’re an interesting pair. I found the scenes that focused on these two Texas Rangers to be at least as engaging as those that focused on the bank robbing brothers.

Hell or High Water does not contain a lot of didactic speechifying about evil banks, and indeed what precisely Texas Midland Bank did to this family and what—if anything—about it was sufficiently egregious to justify bank robbery is not gone into in any detail. But it’s interesting just how many characters in the movie express at least some degree of sympathy for the bank robbers and some degree of antipathy for Texas Midland Bank, or banks in general, or just the economically elite “1%” that they represent. It may be a brief tirade or a mild passing remark, but quite a few characters see the banks as their natural enemies. (Would that they would vote that way in real life.)

The tendency of Texans to carry guns on them in public is a factor in how events play out in the movie. I don’t know that you can really say the movie is clearly pro-gun or anti-gun though. Certainly it depicts the “good guy with a gun” stuff as making something like robbing banks considerably more difficult and risky, generating a significant disincentive to engage in such crimes, but on the other hand if people do attempt violent crimes in spite of that then it seems to escalate those situations and make them deadlier.

There are some elements of Hell or High Water that do not seem fully plausible to me. For instance, if oil has been discovered on the farm, so much so as to set Toby’s kids up for life, wouldn’t there be a way of getting a loan to catch up enough on what’s owed to avoid foreclosure by Texas Midland? Is bank robbery really the only alternative to foreclosure when your property turns out to be vastly more valuable than what you owe on it?

Also, doesn’t Texas have more law enforcement resources than this? Texas Midland Bank is said to have seven branches, but one has just been shut down and some of the others are deemed unlikely targets by Bridges and his partner either because they’ve already been hit or because, in one case, it’s in Fort Worth and the bank robbers’ m.o. seems to be to only hit small branches in the middle of nowhere. That leaves only two or three likely possibilities for the next robbery, and Bridges and his partner have to guess which is their best choice for a stakeout. But that’s because there are only the two rangers. In a situation like that, wouldn’t they assign enough people to the case to watch all these few remaining banks, or at least alert the local sheriffs or whatever so that someone in law enforcement was watching them?

Which also leads to the question of whether the brains behind the operation Toby really is such a brain. I would think it’s a bad idea to commit a series of major crimes in such a way that there are really only very, very few possibilities for what your next one is going to be.

Hell or High Water is an interesting, entertaining film, and it raises important moral issues.

Perhaps the most obvious one is the “two wrongs make a right” problem. Assuming Toby’s interpretation of the bank’s behavior is accurate (and, as I say, it’s the kind of interpretation that many of the common folk in the movie in poverty-stricken rural Texas agree with), and assuming it’s not the case that the bank has broken the law in such a way that they’ll ever be held accountable for (a pretty safe bet in cases like this), are he and his brother justified in taking matters into their own hands and responding to injustice with violent crime against the perpetrator of the injustice?

I don’t know enough about such matters to know if their actions are really even hurting that bank. I mean, don’t banks have some sort of insurance for bank robberies? If you steal $10,000 from one, is it really down $10,000? Or is any such loss kind of spread around to all banks or society as a whole?

A related matter, though, is that when you retaliate with violence, you’ll rarely be able to pull it off so cleanly that only the party you’re arguably justified in targeting suffers. When Toby and Tanner go into bank after bank with guns, there’s every chance that someone who has never wronged them will be hurt or killed.

The deeper it gets into the movie, the more of a sense you get that Tanner gets off on this stuff, that he has something of a psychopathic streak and really does like the idea of “going out in a blaze of glory.” In order for his scheme to have any realistic chance of success, Toby has had to in effect encourage and facilitate this highly dangerous side of his brother.

Which you could see as a metaphor. It doesn’t even have to be two different people; when we engage in violence we let loose a certain dark part of ourselves that we may not be able to fully control, a part of ourselves that may discover it rather likes the feeling of power of dominating and hurting others and doesn’t limit itself to using violence as an allegedly necessary evil in bringing about justified ends.

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