Hell or High Water is a film which blurs the lines between traditional on-screen binaries, good and bad, hero and villain, while at the same time presenting a timeless story of cops and robbers in Texas and a man who will do anything for his family.
From the beginning of the film, the director presents contention between the new and the old, both within the reality of the narrative and the film as a product in itself. Where the traditional Western would have cowboys and Indians (Native Americans), this neo-Western features a half-Native American, half-Mexican police officer, an authority figure, on the side of good, who also happens to smoke a vape pen.
These juxtapositions are peppered throughout; a flashy bright green car pulls up beside a saddled horse. In another scene security footage cannot be viewed because the bank is changing from VHS to digital. Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is in the way it presents a classic story while treating the viewer like a 2016 audience, used to slow burn, character focussed television series like True Detective, and able to parse subtleties in script and performance.
Though good and bad is presented in a microcosmic form (bank robbers and police in a small Texan town), the narrative also suggests a very macro idea of ‘bad’. The battle between the two brothers and the police is transcended by a national injustice to which the film constantly alludes – the financial crisis. The many rich architects of this disaster in the American economy are the unseen collective, antagonists that are against each character in the small towns that the story spans.
The film’s success lies in its willingness to let the story unfurl and to show the characters for who they are, without telling the audience how they should feel about it. All in all, it makes for a wholly entertaining experience.