SPOILER WARNING: Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016) is truly a modern western. But what makes the film stand out from the crowd is that while it may be a western set in the present day, it does not simply translate the elements of the genre to modern times and leave it at that. Instead, the film takes the opportunity of it being a genre out of time to examine the world in new and different ways as opposed to how a western typically does. While many westerns choose to focus on the balance of power, usually between white men and whoever they are fighting, Hell or High Water correctly argues that the world is not this simple nor should it be portrayed as such. Power is still an element in the film, but who holds it up for debate. While it may initially appear that the banks, brokers of practically everything in the world, are the ones holding the cards, Hell or High Water argues and demonstrates that no one can be in control for forever as there is always a fresh new power incoming. This fundamental de-romanticism undercuts much of what defines classical westerns and places Hell or High Water in territory that is foreign to many of the same films.
“150 years ago all this was my ancestors land. Everything you could see, everything you saw yesterday. Until the grandparents of these folks took it. Now it’s been taken from them.” This sentiment, voiced by the Texas Ranger Alberto Parker, sums up much of what Hell or High Water seeks to say about the world at large. A new superpower has emerged on the plains, one that is not completely understood by anyone, and that power is the bank. Each town in the film is almost entirely defined by the bank or banks that it contains. While other sources of perceived power may exist, the bank supersedes all of them. Religion, often a sentimental good in westerns, Angel and the Badman (James Edward Grant, 1947), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), The Bravados (Henry King, 1958), is practically nonexistent in Hell or High Water. In the beginning of the film, a church is seen, but it is framed through part of the bank building. Other traditional hallmarks of the sentimental American spirit are portrayed in alternative ways as well. As the characters of the film drive the roads and streets, signs talking of debt relief and loan help litter the landscape. It is a new world that these characters have found themselves in, but how they respectively handle this world indicates a great deal about how the film perceives it.
For Tanner and Toby Howard, their path of recourse is to strike back against the new power of the land. They steal from the banks that are taking from them in order to pay back those same banks. For them, good and evil, and even to some degree power, are all irrelevant. Instead, only one thing matters to them, and that is simple survival. Toby, at least, has something of a larger sense of the order of the world, as he seeks to elevate the positions of his sons to a place out of the poverty that he has always known. Tanner, on the other hand, simply wants to fight the world for no other reason than that it is all he knows. For him, the world that he longs to live in no longer exists, if it ever did. The same can be said for Toby as well, though he is better equipped to adapt and live in the modern world. In the end, the brothers’ violent course of action pays off for him, but Tanner is decidedly killed by the Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who is more like the brothers than even he lets on.
Marcus, like the brothers and like the populace at large, is facing the end of the world that he has always known. The world is changing, but in the case of Marcus, he knows that he will not be there to take part in its next phase. Retirement looms, as does the eventuality of death, and Marcus recognizes and resents the implications of these things. Despite his lawful affiliations though, Marcus does not necessarily do what he does because he believes that it is right. Instead, he performs his duty out of a longing for a world that has long since passed and for him is about to cease entirely. He hunts Tanner and Toby not just because they are robbing banks, but also because they represent the challenge that he craves. In his own way, he needs them. But the film does not make the assertion that light cannot exist without darkness, good without evil; because in the end the alignments of all the characters are much more complicated that any simplistic labels.
Like No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007), another alternative modern western, many of the characters are more complicated than the labels of good and evil. Whereas Anton Chigurh and Ed Tom Bell may represent evil and good respectively, the other characters that fill out the film are much more complicated than these simple alignments. Llewelyn treads on both the side of good and evil in his own way, and this ultimately leads to his death. But more importantly, both No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water wrestle with the changing nature of the world. While it may appear that the two films are at odds with each other in this regard, as No Country for Old Men argues that good and evil have always clashed with the only thing changing being the forms that embody them, as opposed to the ever-changing nature of the world in Hell or High Water; the two films are actually very similar and offer equally-similar statements. In the latter film, the world may be eternally changing, but in the end nothing truly changes. Power balances shift, but they simply shift to another force that is hardly indistinguishable. Tanner may succeed in conquering the plains from his perspective with his final stand, but there is always someone over the next ridge ready and willing to take it all away.
In the same way, No Country for Old Men, while presenting an unstoppable evil, states that evil has always existed in this way. The only thing that is new about it is the form that it embodies. It is fearsome enough to cause Sheriff Ed Tom to resign his position, but as stated by Ellis, nothing that has happened is new. Lawmen have always clashed and died to evil, and Anton Chigurh is simply a new face put on and ancient force. Similarly, both films have little to no religious presence in them. Ed Tom makes mention of how God has never come into his life just as no one ever speaks of God in Hell or High Water. God is secondary to the active forces of power in both films, and in the end humans define the world at large. Where the films differ are their respective views of people in the world. Whereas all humans can do in No Country for Old Men is fulfill the roles of good or evil, in Hell or High Water Toby manages to achieve something for his family. He knows his fate as a bad man, but his sins as a father will benefit his sons. People are not condemned to the eternal cycle of good versus evil in Hell or High Water, but no one in the film is actually able to change their personal fates, just the fates of others.
Hell or High Water meditates on the changing nature of the world and how while the world may change, everything stays fundamentally the same. As opposed to many classical westerns that argue that the world is there for the taking, Hell of High Water states that nothing lasts forever, not even forces powerful beyond comprehension. Religion is excluded from this argument in both this film and No Country for Old Men as it is regarded as a force that is subject to those that choose to draw upon it, and no one in either of the films has any use for it. Humans and their actions define the world, but humans do not last forever, and neither do the moves they make to change the world. Good and evil may always clash, but those that embody those forces come and go. The same is true for the power in the world, as the respective holders of it are always subject to the next oncoming force. Lords of the plains come and go, but someone or something will always fill the role.