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The CHIRP Blog

Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Hell or High Water

[Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the film Hell or High Water. This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.]


Kevin: While watching Hell or High Water, I was thinking that it's been quite a rough stretch for bankers... but banks have always taken abuse in popular culture, haven't they? They're pretty easy targets for a variety of reasons:

1) By definition, they're symbols of wealth and power.

2) They're largely faceless* institutions -- and like corporations, they tend to have a robotic, uncompromising element to them. Like a Terminator of finance. Good ol' Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones explained it best when discussing the Iron Bank of Braavos: "You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money and you don't want to crumble yourself, you pay it back."

[* Not always, of course. Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life was not a popular man in his town. And Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol was so infamous that his last name became synonymous with being miserly.]

3) Banks tend not to be staffed with Dudley Do-Rights who are trying to better society. When it comes to Hollywood, bankers always seem to be trying to put one over on you. 

4) Historically, moneylending hasn't exactly been viewed as a noble profession. (And of course, mafia loan sharks go one step further by adding an element of violence to the proceedings.) 

I struggle to think of one positive depiction of someone working in the financial industry -- does the cop who snared Al Capone with tax evasion charges in The Untouchables count? 

That brings us to Hell or High Water, where brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are attracting the attention of Texas Rangers (led by Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton) by staging a series of small-time bank robberies. Since the thefts are minor, the witnesses are few, and the proceeds are quickly laundered via casino chips, the duo seems to be faring well. But of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, Tanner is a bit of a hothead who starts taking needless risks that threaten the whole enterprise.

Why are they committing these robberies -- and specifically, robbing branches of the same bank in particular? There's more than meets the eye here, and it's evident that plain greed isn't the motivating factor. Does that excuse these crimes? That's up to the viewer to decide. I was certainly surprised when the film garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination -- but it was a well-made thriller (some have called it a Western) with a political spin that taps into the zeitgeist of the time, even if the anti-bank theme seems a bit like overkill these days.

Clarence, did the "ends justify the means" for you? Also, what did you think of the depiction of Hamilton and his Texas Rangers? To say nothing of Texas -- the film does highlight the perils of committing crimes in an area where your average Mom & Pop are packing heat.

Clarence: Not-rich people taking stuff from the rich (or rich institutions) has been a theme in the movies since The Great Train Robbery (1903), and I think it’s because of our fundamental relationship with wealth.

As you described, banks have a distinct image in our society. In this Capitalist wonderland, they are also one of our basic institutions, all but impossible to avoid unless you are determined to live “off the grid.”

For poor people, banks rarely make life better for no reason, but they sure can make it worse. When the economy turns south and banks become The People Who Take Your House Away, fantasies of using other means to move wealth around can be lived out in movies like Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Since they automatically involve a goal, a time limit, and potential for danger, robberies can be thrilling to watch on film. My favorite jobs include the French caper Rififi and “Dead Freight,” an episode from the series Breaking Bad. (They were stealing Methylamine, not cash, but still).

There’s a bottom-line logic in the idea of knocking over places with riches. Willie Sutton, who spent his life robbing banks and escaping prisons, was once asked “Why did you rob all those banks?” His answer: “Because that’s where the money is.” Do the ends justify the means? GREAT QUESTION! (…he types, hoping to avoid having to make a definitive statement…!)

As for Hell or High Water, I liked the film overall, but only "liked." There’s something about the film’s tone that didn’t quite gel. It lacked the profound absurdity of Fargo or the artistic lyricism of No Country for Old Men, two movies I thought of while watching this one. Basically, it felt only a couple of steps away from being a very good straight-to-video or basic cable feature.

Jeff Bridges did a good job with his role, as did the other leads, although I feel Tommy Lee Jones in No Country was able to depict his “old, world-weary cop about to retire after one more case” character with more, for lack of a better word, soul.

And I don’t mind telling you I got a little tired of Hamilton’s casual racism toward his half-Native American half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (played by Gil Birmingham), who Hamilton treats more like a gopher and assistant than a law man. I get it, old-timer, you’re from another era.

However, the film did do a good job at showing Parker’s annoyed and wearied reactions to Hamilton’s “jokes,” something most other films don’t take time to do. And the movie’s depiction of small-town Texas (hot, poor, boring, and full of guns) is certainly something you don’t see every day. The Wild West rarely looked so depleted and defeated on film.

I’m trying to think of any movies I’ve seen recently that portray Texas (or any former Confederate state) as something other than a place to move away from. Can you think of any films that depict the American South in a positive light?

Also, I think the reason this movie got an Oscar nod is because the current Academy docket requires nominating 10 films, which I think is too many. Do you?

Kevin: And here I found it endearing that the local populace took it upon themselves to defend their own hides and run those bank robbers right outta town!

That being said, Southern culture (and that of rural America in general) isn't exactly my preferred brand. I sifted through this list, and didn't spot too many positive depictions. Beasts of the Southern Wild, perhaps? Bull Durham? I'll add two that weren't included, but that I thought depicted Texas as a scenic place, at least -- Boyhood and The Tree of Life. 

Also, I'm now thinking of how Southerners could point to a whole bunch of nasty-looking films about urban areas. Hell, how 'bout New York City alone? Mean Streets, Death Wish, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy... the Big Apple has appeared decidedly unfriendly (and filthy to boot) in many of its depictions. And really, this isn't too far from the truth, right? Even in a comedy like Coming to America, one of the jokes is how the visiting royalty gets robbed blind as soon as they turn their backs on their possessions for two seconds. 

As for enacting revenge on the banks for perceived misdeeds... was that really the case with films like Reservoir Dogs? I had the impression they were career criminals, not folks who robbed to simply put food on the table, a la Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. But we're very much in agreement on how heists naturally make for great thrillers -- I'll add The Italian Job and The Score to your list. 

I also agree that putting up 10 films for Best Picture Oscar nods is a bit of a stretch; besides the issue of quality, there's also the problem of voters not even watching all the nominated films. Then again, I don't pay a terrible amount of attention to awards shows? I was pleased (and surprised) when Moonlight captured the top prize this year, but this is art, and art is always subjective in nature.

There are films that I refer to as "Popcorn Movies" -- they're usually escapist fare (lots of sci-fi and horror fall into this category), and while they can be extremely enjoyable, they don't stick with me much when they're finished. Gravity is Exhibit A for me in this category... and that also won a Best Picture nod, by the way. I don't use the Popcorn label to be critical -- even someone like me who gravitates towards dark storytelling can't always head down that path. Hell or High Water basically wanted to serve as a "heist film with a conscience," but at the end of the day for me, well, it was a run-of-the-mill Popcorn Movie*.

[* As opposed to perhaps the greatest Popcorn Movie of All Time in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which somehow lost for Best Picture against... Chariots of Fire?! I think the Oscar folks need to take a page from the modern sports world and make their votes public.]

P.S. Didn't Mr. Sutton know that's where all the security was, too? Ha. Maybe Ringo and Yolanda (aka Honeybunny) from Pulp Fiction had the right idea with regards to ripping off diners and their patrons? As long as we're not talking about towns with permissive concealed-carry laws...

Clarence: The scenes with the townspeople taking up arms were interesting to me. A lot of people in America feel that individuals should be prepared to defend themselves from Bad Guys, which means keeping your gun on you and being prepared to use it when you deem it necessary. But I struggle to think of a situation, real or fictional, where you had a lot of people shooting guns at the same time and it ended well. For a lot of heist films, the point where things go wrong usually involves someone getting shot, usually an innocent civilian.

And I may be wrong, but don’t banks usually tell their staff that if they’re being robbed to just give up the money rather than trying to shoot it out? By unfolding the story the way they did, the Hell or High Water filmmakers might have been commentating on what could happen when everybody becomes the police.

It’s true, there have been many movies premised on the collapse of the Metropolis. The entire idea of Batman is that the The Big City is so evil it takes a billionaire vigilante to hold things together. My favorite urban apocalypse movie is probably Escape From New York, a film based on the premise that crime gets so out of control the government says “Fu*k it, let’s make NYC a gigantic prison and be done with it.” A clever idea and well-made Popcorn flick.

And I think more than a few New Yorkers like how their city has a reputation for being an exciting place where you have to watch your back. I saw a documentary a while ago called NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell that was about New York City in 1977, a time when most people correctly figured the city was on the brink of collapse. But it also was the time that saw the height of Disco and the emergence of Hip-Hop and American Punk music. Big cities, for all their problems, have also always been rightly held up as incubators of culture (art, music, literature), something I don’t think has been said about smaller towns, especially in The South. And I know for a fact that there’s a lot going on musically in The South, from Pop to Rap to Metal. For all the things that the region has to answer for, I think it probably doesn’t get enough credit for certain positive achievements along those lines.

I’m on the same page as you regarding Hell or High Water’s position as a pretty good Popcorn Movie. I also agree that more transparency from the Academy as to how they make their decisions would be nice, not just from an artistic but a business perspective. In my opinion, there are three awards left in the world that bestow instant credibility on the person who gets one: A Nobel Prize, an Olympic Medal, and an Oscar. Even if time or opinion shows that you don’t deserve it, being able to put “Oscar Winning” or even “Oscar Nominated” on your resumé opens doors for you in a very real way, along with defining the history of one of America’s most influential industries. When it comes to awards, tight rules that people can understand are usually better. Because we know what it looks like when random people in an industry get awards for reasons no one can decipher…The Grammys. 

[Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!]



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