Greg, is it true that someone told us to go to Hell?
Only if Hell is a town in West Texas. Let’s recap:
We meet the Howard brothers, a pair of modern-day cowboys who have taken to robbing banks in west Texas. Toby (Chris Pine) is the younger brother, and Tanner (Ben Foster) is the older brother who has recently been released from prison. On their tail is a pair of Texas Rangers who want to put an end to the brothers’ crime spree. The head Ranger is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is nearing retirement, and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who somehow tolerates Hamilton’s racist banter.
The brothers have a scheme to rob the Midland Bank of enough cash to pay off the debts of their mother’s reverse-mortgaged ranch. The brothers are following Toby’s plan, but Tanner is a loose cannon and strays from the plan. This leaves enough clues for Hamilton and Parker to predict their next heist. It’s a game of cat and mouse as the Rangers close in on the brothers in a tight spiral.
Greg, I’ll just come right out and say it. Hell or High Water is one of the best movies of 2016. How refreshing it is for a film released in August to boast a rich and nuanced screenplay coupled with memorable and multidimensional characters. This movie held me in rapture, from the opening scene to the closing scene. The film opens with a bank robbery but in the background stands a church with three prominent crosses on the wall, foreshadowing the later deaths of three of this film’s main characters. In the concluding scene, Hamilton moves away from the camera while the camera hits the dirt, suggesting that he is, in fact, the third casualty.
This movie compels you to see things and to see people at a deeper level, a human level. The four main characters have an unusual strength and depth to them, a multi-dimensionality that I haven’t seen in the movies in years. Jeff Bridges didn’t just portray a Texas Ranger; he was that Ranger. It’s Oscar time for him, for sure. Every character inhabiting this film came alive on the big screen, made me laugh, made me cry, or repulsed me. The film is a true gem, a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking when character development mattered.
Part of the pleasure of this story is that it’s a mystery. The mystery is: why are these cowboys robbing these banks? We’re fed clues incrementally, just as the Texas Rangers discover them. So, despite the fact that we’re following the brothers closely, we don’t know the reasons why until nearly the third act.
This is a great anti-villain story cut from the same cloth as Bonnie and Clyde and The Sting. The lead characters are villainous as they are on the moral high ground. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we talk about anti-heroes. They take on the characteristics of villains but are the characters we are rooting for. Contrariwise, the Texas Rangers are anti-villains. That is, they are the good guys in the story, but are the antagonists for the leads.
It’s a great structure. But what makes this film work, more than anything else, is the depth of the characters portrayed. I had to do a double-take because I thought this might have been a Coen Brothers or Weinstein film (both producers of great character-based films). But no, this one was penned by veteran television writer Taylor Sheridan (Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy). I was blown away by the combination of action, suspense, and great character detail.
You’re so right, Greg. The hero’s journeys are nontraditional, with the Howards voluntarily moving into the dangerous unfamiliar world while pulling the Rangers in with them. Tanner performs the ultimate (anti-) heroic act of sacrificing himself for the success of the mission, and Alberto does the ultimate heroic act of sacrificing himself, albeit involuntarily, for the success of the Rangers’ mission. We have parallel anti-hero and hero stories with no real transformation, only adaptation to circumstances — which can be considered a type of transformative adjustment heroes need for success.
The mentoring is equally rich and unconventional. Older brother Tanner takes the physical lead role in being badass and anti-heroic, but it is his younger brother Toby who masterminds the entire caper. Among the Rangers, it is Marcus who mentors Alberto in the dress code and in doing detective work, but in the end it is Alberto’s quiet dignity that exerts a great emotional impact on Marcus. Toby also plays an important mentoring role with his older son — or, rather, an anti-mentoring role, as Toby cautions his son not to be like him.
While the Rangers serve as anti-villain characters, it’s also pretty clear that the biggest villain in this story is the institution of banking. In our most recent book we discuss how institutions can take on villainous roles. Usually these institutions are societal scourges such as racism or sexism. In this film the villainous institution is clearly the financial industry that conspires to squeeze every cent out of society’s most innocent and vulnerable people. In doing their noble anti-villainous work, the Rangers encounter obstacles in the form of popular disdain for the banks that are being robbed. The robbers, in effect, take on folk-hero status. So the villain in this story, the banking industry, ends up hindering the anti-villains’ ability to carry out their mission while having a slightly facilitative effect for the anti-hero brothers. In all it’s a fascinating triad of anti-heroes, anti-villains, and institutional villain.
Hell or High Water is a cleverly draw tail of modern-day anti-heroes. Everything in this film is excellent: the acting, the cinematography, the story, even the scenery. Often in the movies I’m distracted by the execution of the “seams” of the standard plot points. But Hell kept me in suspense with it’s unspoken mystery of why these brothers were robbing banks. I can’t imagine anything that would have made this film better. I give it 5 out of 5 Reels and I expect an Oscar nomination for the film.
The brothers are classic anti-heroes in that they are making morally wrong choices, but still we see them as heroes because they are subverting the evil banking institution. They are chased by the virtuous (if albeit cantankerous) Rangers as anti-villains, trying to thwart the brothers’ goal of robbing the bank. In the end Tanner martyrs himself, which is a selfless act, but kills Ranger Parker in the process, cementing his anti-hero status. I give this hero structure 5 out of 5 Heroes.
We’re witness to some fine mentoring by the venerable Ranger Hamilton upon the younger Ranger Parker. Although Hamilton insults Parker, he lets us know that it’s a friendly way of acknowledging and (in a strange way) respecting their differences. We also see cross-mentoring between brothers Toby and Tanner. Tanner advises Toby in the ways of bank robbing while Toby shares his intelligence and values with Tanner. It’s wonderful mentoring throughout which I award 5 out of 5 Mentor points.
Ditto, ditto, ditto, Greg. By hell or high water, this movie had better garner some Academy Award nominations. This film is a true cinematic achievement and boasts the complete package — a meaty script, memorable characters, marvelous acting, a socially relevant message, and a surprising twist or two in the closing act. Jeff Bridges is especially brilliant; I’ll never forget his complex emotional reaction after his successful sniping of his prey. I have no hesitation in awarding the film the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.
Our four main characters represent the finest combination of heroes and anti-heroes we’ve seen in the movies in several years. As you’ve noted, Greg, each pairing has its own unique dynamic of power, influence, and communication. The Howard brothers have a lifetime of chemistry to draw from, and the Rangers are in the process of developing theirs. In the end, there is an unshakeable bond within each pairing, and it’s a true tragedy that only one of the four walks away the rubble of this tragic story. For giving us fabulous characters with moral complexity whom we can really sink our analytic teeth into, this ensemble easily merits a rating of 5 Heroes out of 5.
We’ve talked at length about the complex and nuanced mentoring that goes on within each buddy hero and anti-hero pairing. We’re also treated to a rare episode of anti-mentoring going on between Toby and his son. The father-son relationship is actually the catalytic epicenter of the entire robbery spree. As with everything else in this film, the mentoring is exceptionally interesting and warrants a rating of the full 5 Mentors out of 5.