The history of American storytelling is steeped in the myth of the outlaw. The most successful and enduring stories, the ones that best reflect our culture and capture our collective imaginations, are the ones that venerate those who live outside the standards and mores of our society. We cheer the Jesse Jameses, the Bonnies and the Clydes, the John Dillingers, elevating them all to great heights where they sit among the pantheon of America’s Pop Cultural Olympus. Hell, even that greatest of American myths, the story of our independence, is populated by a cast of traitors—across the pond, even George Washington is an outlaw.
Perhaps that’s the reason for the perennial endurance of the heroic criminal figure in our narrative traditions. Americans, for better or for worse, can’t help but want to cheer for those who do wrong. It’s what we do and have always done, from John Hancock to Edward Snowden. The important caveat to that is, of course, that we save our greatest, highest places on the heroes ladder for those who do wrong for the right reasons. This doesn’t fully explain the persistence of criminals in American myth, except for the fact that our most “beloved” real life outlaws had the decency to be outlaws in periods of economic strife—being a bank robber when banks are seen, justly, as crooks really helps with optics.
Enter Hell or High Water, a film that continues the long and storied tradition of examining the American outlaw myth by updating it to the present day. A beautiful film, its story is as timeless as it is timely. It could have easily been a story of Jesse James or Baby Face Nelson, but that it isn’t is a testament to both the endurance of the popularity of its myth and the state of the world today. Its surface level narrative of two bank robbing brothers is used as a window into the realities of our present economic situation, and the increasingly unequal playing fields of American life.
Chris Pine (Star Trek Beyond) and Ben Foster (Warcraft) are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Following the death of their mother, the two are faced with the prospect of losing their family’s ranch to the bank. In order to pay off their mother’s debts, and ensure the ranch stays in the family, the brothers hatch a scheme to pay off the bank loans by robbing branches of the bank they owe money to. Their spree catches the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). With the law on their trail, the Howards must figure out a way to finish their spree and save the family ranch.
The simple plot belies the quiet poignancy of the film and its message, which speaks directly to the disaffected masses on all sides of all aisles. There’s a moment mid-film, when Ranger Hamilton is interviewing a group of witnesses in the diner across the street from one of the brothers’ targets. “Y’all been here a while,” he asks. “Long enough to watch the bank getting robbed that’s been robbing me for thirty years,” comes the reply. It’s an attitude reflected far beyond the confines of the small, west Texas locale of the film; these days, Americans are united by anti-banking sentiments more than by any other issue currently affecting us.
It’s hard not to root for the Howard brothers in their cross Texas spree. Their ingenious plan fueled by our sympathies, modern cinema has never given us an outlaw as cheerworthy as Toby and Tanner. Tayler Sheridan’s (Sicario) pitch perfect script is a masterwork of character, creating intensely relatable everymen from whom we desire success. We applaud their capers, holding our breath as they attempt to outrun Ranger Hamilton. Even when lines are crossed, we’re willing to overlook their sins as byproducts of the greater sins that put them in the position in the first place.
All of this leads to a remarkable musing on the nature of morality, which gently lulls us from our black or white stances into a foggy grey that, somehow, offers clarity beyond mere right or wrong. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) adds breathtaking depth to the American outlaw myth, with sweeping shots that almost recall a modern Sergio Leone. Like Leone, Mackenzie’s European understanding of American culture allows for a sort of outsider’s inside look at the society, creating a mirror by which we can better see ourselves. We cheer the successes of the brothers, and are then immediately forced to consider the absurdity that they should ever have been forced into the situation to begin with.
What’s truly amazing, however, is how little our intrinsic morality is obscured. Pine’s Toby and Foster’s Tanner are two sides of the outlaw coin—where Toby’s cause feels just, Tanner’s feels chaotic. In the end, it’s not Tanner we want to see succeed, it’s Toby. Where Tanner is indefensible, Toby is righteous. It’s a keen reflection of the outlaw myth that so often goes unspoken. Your success in our eyes is dependent upon the moral fortitude of your character and the justness of your cause. In America, the height of your exaltation is equal to the forces you work against.
That’s what separates the mythic outlaw from your run of the mill crook. With Hell or High Water, Mackenzie and Sheridan have created a stunning tale of morality that both glorifies and critiques the outlaw myth, exploring all aspects of modern America in an easily digestible tale of good vs. evil. By showing us the simple and the familiar, Hell or High Water becomes a timeless tale that reminds us of the importance of the outlaw for our own moral compasses. It’s a modern classic and easily the best film of 2016 so far.
Hell or High Water is now playing in theaters everywhere.