Billy Preston famously sang, “I got a story ain’t got no moral, I let the bad guy win every once in a while.”
The antihero protagonist is not new in film. You can go back to “Citizen Kane” or even “Casablanca” to see this type of character.
“Hell or High Water” presents two brothers who fit the bill. They are doing wrong things for what would seem to be the right reason.
Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) rob banks. Not just any bank, but a specific bank: Texas Midland Bank.
The reason for their larcenous ways goes back to a reverse mortgage their recently deceased mother took out on the family farm.
The bank loaned her the lowest amount possible and now is going to foreclose on the property and take away the land. The land also recently was found to have oil on it.
The Brothers Howard rob Texas Midland, only taking the loose money in the drawers, no bundles, to avoid the ink bombs planted in those bundles.
They then take the money to an out-of-state casino and launder the money by getting the casino to issue a check to Texas Midland.
Toby is the brains behind the operation. He is soft spoken with an ex-wife and two boys. His manner is easy going and unassuming.
Tanner is the hot head. He recently got out of prison. For him, the bank robbing is fun and a way for him to inflict himself on others.
Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is a Texas Ranger who is chasing these two. He is a few weeks away from retirement. The job gives him the ability to throw around his intelligence and his authority.
Hamilton and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), want to find these two and arrest them before retirement takes Hamilton out of the hunt.
The morality here is clear: Robbing banks is wrong. But the way this story is presented and the different images the movie portrays muddle the morality.
All throughout the movie, there are scenes of signs on the road declaring help to those in debt. It is clear that the filmmakers are saying that those in that kind of business are just using a legal form of theft.
Tanner and Toby are getting back at those who steal, and the audience is asked to root for them.
One can see there is coming a reckoning, but the filmmakers want the viewer to see how the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. Tanner and Toby are surely the poor.
This movie has much going for it. Both Foster and Pine are excellent as the bank-robbing brothers. They have real chemistry, and the script aids that well. The chatter between the two of them makes us believe that they are actually brothers.
Jeff Bridges is great as a lawman that is at the end of the trail but not ready to get down off his horse just yet.
Another important point is that no character is wasted in this movie. The focus of the story is really on the brothers and the rangers, but there are people that populate the movie that stir us.
A good example of this is Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon), the waitress in a cafÃ© that the brothers stop in.
She is not on the screen for a great period of time, but there is a depth of character development that few movies today take the time to do.
We see her as a person who is trying her best to make a living in a place where that is becoming harder and harder.
“Hell or High Water” stirs us to look at where we are as a nation. With payday lenders that put people into indentured servanthood, the discussion it prompts is one of is all of this “easy credit” right? But also, does the church have a role to play?
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Ben Foster: Tanner Howard; Chris Pine: Toby Howard; Jeff Bridges: Marcus Hamilton; Katy Mixon: Jenny Ann; Gil Birmingham: Alberto.
The movie’s website is here.