A Crime Drama, “Hell or High Water” as an Oscar Contender?

Hell or High Water is a recent contender for the Academy Award’s “Best Picture,” but what about this film makes it qualify for that highly sought after status? It is certainly a well-made picture, with captivating performances from Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, but does Hell or High Water have that extra ‘something’ to give it that coveted “Best Picture” title.  After all, isn’t this just a crime drama like so many others?

The Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster,) are committing a string of bank robberies throughout West Texas. On their trail are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).  The Howard brothers have a seemingly noble cause behind their actions: oil was recently discovered on their family ranch but, with the passing of their impoverished mother, that family property will soon be in the hands of Texas Midlands Bank. Hell or High Water is, essentially, a modern revisionist Western film (not unlike No Country for Old Men). However, Hell or High Water, is not just a bank heist film; it deals with three different philosophies; that of the ‘Revisionist Western’ cinematic movement that came about in the 1960’s, a commentary about American capitalism, and as a statement about ideas of colonialism.

When it comes to American cinema, the American Western was an institution of its own. Directors like John Ford and actors such as John Wayne, made movies about the wild frontier of the ‘Old West’ which, while completely inaccurate, fed ideas of white superiority over untamed savages and a wild country. Instead of going into the details of those inaccuracies, I will instead recommend the Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Blue Hotel”, which delves into the dangers of this false idea of the Wild West. The defining features of the American Western were the images of a virgin land ready for exploitation and the ideal of ‘good’ consistently triumphing over ‘evil.’ What defined good and evil was a definition of American ideals of the early 20th century which basically stated that ‘good’ was a law abiding white and ‘evil’ was other. Whether the hero cowboy defeated bank robbers or a horde of raging Indians or Mexicans, the American Western gave history to a narrative of white supremacy.  Hell or High Water has the images of a virgin land, the wide expanses of West Texas, and they are ready to be exploited for the oil hidden under its surface. Hell or High Water is not a traditional Western; as a revisionist Western it has very different ideas of what is ‘good’ versus ‘evil.’

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After WWII some filmmakers began to question the Nationalist values evident in American Westerns. Those questions became the seeds of what would be the Revisionist Western movement in cinema.  While those values were questioned, the mores of American cinema kept them repressed. The genre, however, was incredibly popular in Italy, where filmmakers such as Sergio Leone created their own American Westerns that specifically commented on American republican values. With his ‘Dollars Trilogy’ that consisted of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), Leone specifically questioned ideals of greedy capitalism and the exploitation of native and Mexican populations for personal profit. In addition, these ‘spaghetti westerns’ were far more violent, truly showing the bloody cost of human life. Clint Eastwood performed in those three films and brought the idea of the Revisionist Western to the United States with High Plains Drifter (1973), a violent movie where the ‘hero’ rapes a woman and murders an entire town in a personal fight against greedy capitalists exploiting the land and enslaving the community; a theme he later explored in Pale Rider (1985). Hell or High Water is certainly a modern revisionist Western, using the ideas of a wild west to create humans out of criminals and question American ideals.

Fitting with the idea of the Revisionist Western, the Howard brothers appear human and similar to the police officers in their struggles under capitalism. Their family ranch is under control of Texas Midlands Bank because their mother could not afford to pay all the loans she’d taken against the property. Since oil was recently discovered on the property, which brings incredible profit, the ‘saintly’ Toby decides to rob the $43,000 he needs from Texas Highlands Bank, and then give that money back to the bank in order to repay the debt. In order to insure that his family owns that property with these ill-gotten funds, he takes it to an Indian casino, makes a show of gambling for a few moments, and then turn it back in to cash through the form of a check from the casino—gambling winnings are subject to different laws of governance than other funds. Toby, however, cannot pull this off himself because of his natural, law-abiding nature, so he recruits the help of his criminal and sociopath brother to pull off these robberies. Robbing the bank in order to pay back the bank is an idea of appropriate (though not civil) disobedience to fight against capitalist systems; if only to then use the money he earns from those oil corporations in order to make sure his family can have a comfortable life.

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While those ideas are shown through the actions of the police officers, they are told through the two Texas Rangers. Alberto is half Comanche and half Mexican, subject to countless ‘friendly’ racist jokes from his boss, Gil. In a significant monologue, Alberto points out that all this land in Texas used to belong to his people, first the Indians, then the Mexicans, before being taken in America’s unjust war for Manifest Destiny. However those Americans that settled that stolen land didn’t keep it—the oligarchy of America ensured that the banks took those lands away again. Alberto’s monologue expresses the very ideas of colonialism: we want your land and your work on the land but we will never respect you as human beings deserving of a fair recompense for the labor provided on what was once your land.

These are some significant social issues that bring Hell or High Water above a typical modern Western. It directly comments on the capitalist ideas of America in such a way that doesn’t favor capitalism. Tanner, the evil and criminal brother, finds himself as a victim of his own brother’s ambition. Toby Howard uses capitalism to fight capitalism. The Texas Ranger deputy, Alberto, explains in one scene how all this land once belonged to his people, first the Comanches and then the Mexicans, but the white man came and stole it away from them. Now that land is being taken away from the white man by the banks. Such a story places the banks, which may be an institution of man, operate against man, adversarial to the interests of the same men that created them. Capitalism is the enemy. While the characters in the film have their conflicts with each other (the law man vs. the bank robber), the greater conflict that they all share is as a slave to capitalism.

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These evident themes make Hell or High Water a significant example of a modern revisionist Western; the images of the American wilderness combined with a goodguy/badguy story that comments on the flaws in American society – capitalism specifically. It advances the narrative of filmmaking, especially within this genre, as well as providing insightful commentary about American society, all the good marks of a film deserving of a nomination for Best Picture.  Hell or High Water, however, is the dark horse of this year’s competition. It is not as flashy or ambitious as the others, nor is it’s commentary and unique use of film conventions readily apparent. At its core, Hell or High Water is simply a crime drama with a bit of action; leading many to make the statements of “Well it’s a good movie but…”  It probably won’t win, but it is definitely worth checking out.

3 thoughts on “A Crime Drama, “Hell or High Water” as an Oscar Contender?

    1. Yeah, we’ve had plenty of modern revisionist westerns that were great. “No County for Old Men” comes immediately to mind. This flick certainly didn’t have a Javier Bardem villain in person. The villain was capitalism, which is every bit as sinister, but is the average viewer going to catch that?

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