Hell or High Water, or, The Dystopian Now

hellorhighwater

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If I had to sell you on the film Hell or High Water in a hurry I’d call it Heat meets No Country for Old Men. But that would be selling it short.

Director Dave Mackenzie’s modern day Western (written by Taylor Sheridan) follows to brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on a campaign of bank robberies across the southwest and the pair of Texas rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) tasked with bringing them in. Far from a crass, gun-slinging shoot ’em up, Hell or High Water is the kind of patient, slow-burning thriller that marinates you in its themes and ideas so that when the story reaches a fever pitch every footstep feels like a fight sequence not only because you’ve sat through a masterful buildup, but because there are concepts at war with one another that totally dwarf the cops and robbers on screen.

Hell or High Water has a remarkable sense of place, almost immediately establishing its version of the American Southwest as something of a dystopian now where any bigoted or backwards excuses societies use to justify the disparities between the powerful and the powerless have eroded to leave a social hierarchy as bare as the film’s desert setting. The America of Hell or High Water isn’t divided up by race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. Those poor excuses for social hierarchy are gone here. The wealthy are wealthy because they have wealth and the poor are poor because they don’t and that’s the way of things.

The film’s characters dance around a social structure that’s been in place so long it doesn’t even have to bother disguising itself with half-assed logic or justice anymore. They grapple and grasp what power they can, be it the legal authority to impose the status quo or the imposition of chaos and violence on the rigid, immovable society around them, but at the end of the day in Hell or High Water you either have more money than anyone has any reason to have or you live your life in the shadow of someone else’s mountain or riches.

Hell or High Water shines a light on a world where things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, a world where any rationalization of the growing disparity in resources between the haves and have-nots has given way to a resigned acceptance. It isn’t just a fantastic Western, it’s a film that shows the cracks in the foundation of a status quo that is all too easy to take as inherent.

 

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