2017 Film Essays

Redemptive Criminality in David Mackenzie’s ‘Hell or High Water’



At the beginning of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the disadvantaged state of the West Texas common man is introduced. Accompanying images of a destitute town, graffiti reveals the reminder “No Bailout for People Like Us.” During the Great Recession, struggling farmers, cowboys and other small townspeople were left to survive on their own, in whatever manner they could, “come hell or high water.” Property foreclosures abounded, along with droughts and wildfires, while oil companies and banks thrived. The federal government did not rush to the aid of poor ranchers like Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), or their recently deceased mother. Rather, it was the banks that were bailed out, enabling them to carry on their business of stripping clients of their property and further burying the poor in debt. In Hell or High Water, Toby and Tanner refuse to succumb to such economic fate, resorting to robbing banks before they become their next financial victims. Though Tanner’s life is lost in the quest, the brothers victoriously save the family ranch from foreclosure, and bring financial security to Toby’s sons by securing the land lease to Chevron. They are triumphant in sparing another generation the “disease” of poverty. Along with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, director Mackenzie establishes Toby and Tanner as lovable criminals — the good guys — who prevail against the “evil” banks. This phenomenon of good people doing bad things for seemingly good reasons is what Mackenzie termed “redemptive criminality.” Mackenzie acknowledged that the appeal of this grey morality was one of the reasons he chose to direct Sheridan’s screenplay.

The grey hue of Hell or High Water becomes more distinguishable when juxtaposed to films with plots that are more clearly black or white. Two films that serve this purpose are Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) and Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart (1983). While they vary in moral clarity, these films share similarities to Hell or High Water in characterization, story and/or setting.


In Gun Crazy, Bart (John Dall) is a nice, conscientious guy, who succumbs to theft due to his weaknesses. In his youth, he commits robbery because of his fanatic craving for guns. As an adult, he robs banks to satisfy the materialistic desires of his lover, Annie (Peggy Cummins). His skill in shooting guns (and passion for them) is similar to Tanner in Hell or High Water. However, Bart’s reluctance to kill another human likens him much more to Toby. Both Bart and Toby futilely try to suppress attempts by their partners in crime to kill others during robberies. Tanner and Annie enjoy the thrill of the crimes, and they’re impetuous, straying from the precise, calculated plans of Toby and Bart. Tanner spontaneously robs a bank while Toby finishes lunch, and Annie deviates from Bart’s instruction to remain stationary in the getaway car. Both Tanner and Annie are frustrated with their accomplices’ lack of aggression and criminal naivety. The bank robberies in Gun Crazy and Hell or High Water are small scale and rather unsophisticated. The final bank robbery in Mackenzie’s film reaches a greater magnitude and involves killing, similar to the payroll theft which is the final heist in Gun Crazy. A fundamental difference between Bart and Toby is that Bart acknowledges full responsibility for the loss of innocent lives, even though it was Annie who fired the deadly shots. Bart woefully acknowledges, “Two people are dead. Just so we can live without working…You go into a racket like this at the point of a gun, you have to be ready to kill even before you start a job. I’m as guilty as you are. I’ve just let you do my killing for me.” Though Bart is a likable character, it is clear to him and film viewers that his deadly fate is justified.

For Toby, however, it takes retired Sheriff Marcus Hamilton to confront him with his guilt for the death of Ranger Alberto Parker, and the deaths of others, even though Tanner pulls the trigger. Marcus clarifies Toby’s responsibility because Toby is the master-mind of the bank robberies, launching the chain of events. Yet, apparent justification of the entire criminal bank robbery scheme is best summarized by Ranger Parker as he states, “150 years ago, all of this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now, it’s been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. It’s those sons of bitches right there [pointing to the Texas Midlands Bank].” Further confirmation is heard from Toby’s attorney, who exonerates his own involvement as well in Toby’s scheme, as he explains, “They [the bank] loaned the least they could. Just enough to keep your mama poor on a guaranteed return. Thought they could swipe her land for $25,000. That’s just so arrogant, it makes my teeth hurt.” Therefore, film viewers may root for Toby and Tanner to prevail, even though the brothers’ actions are against the law. However, law, government and big business — protected by the law and government — have turned against them. So, their criminality appears to be redeemed, at least to some degree, by their persecution. The morality in Hell or High Water is further clouded by the guilt plaguing Marcus for his portion of responsibility for Parker’s death. His relentless pursuit of Toby and Tanner, the intensity of which exceeds the magnitude of their robberies, cost him his dear friend, a devoted husband and father of five children.


Any absolution of wrongful actions in Hell or High Water is susceptible to criticism when it is compared to Places in the Heart. Both films feature a bank eager to foreclose on a Texas widow (or her estate). The film settings are quite similar. The time is the Great Depression in Places in the Heart and the Great Recession in Hell or High Water. Yet, the characters’ responses to economic plight are strikingly different. While Toby and Tanner commit robbery to gain economic security, Edna Spalding (Sally Field), a sheriff’s widow, is a female business pioneer, taking on the ambitious task of converting her 40-acre farm to a cotton plantation, with the assistance of and faith in a homeless black man, Moze (Danny Glover). Edna is dutifully committed to her children, just as Toby loves his boys. Both Edna and Toby are careful and smart as they make their plans. What differs is that Edna maintains impeccable moral character and fortitude, strong enough to pursue only honorable means of redemption from poverty. Before pursuing cotton growing, Edna even sought an opportunity to become a beautician. Toby did not get any serious consideration to the waitress’ suggestion that he become a restaurant cook. Ironically, Edna’s story could be a precursor for what may be a comparable contemporary story of Ranger Alberto Parker’s widow.


The conclusions of these three films mirror the degree of clarity of their morality. In Gun Crazy, the guilty criminals die. Peace of God magnanimously befalls everyone at the end of Places in the Heart. An ambiguous, nagging sense of unresolved guilt looms for Toby and Marcus when Hell or High Water concludes, leaving film viewers to ponder whether Toby and Marcus become each other’s redeemers or ongoing antagonists of tension and anxiety.

David Mackenzie said that making Hell or High Water was particularly relevant to him in this past election year. That viewpoint appears relevant when one considers that a large portion of the voters were reported to be comprised of small townspeople who felt forgotten and unaided by government and shunned by big business. Therefore, the popularity and relevance of this film should be no surprise. Yet, it rightfully deserves film award nominations and will most assuredly remain popular long past 2016, because of the universal appeal of taking control of one’s destiny and righting the wrong one has suffered. We live in a grey world, which is likely to become cloudier. We want to see good people succeed, “come hell or high water.”

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.