I used to go out walking down this decommissioned highway. The old part of town. If you squinted, you could see signs that it was once bustling: great big warehouses with faded lettering alluding to steel and lumber; old motels that used to have swimming pools and bars; little weed-choked frames of buildings on vacant lots suggesting bygone diners and coffee shops; train yards gone entirely to rust. It was a lonely place. Quiet. Small working towns can get heavy with the sense of decline, of time passed, of transience — people were happy here, but they’re not now, or they’re gone now. The only places still hopping with activity on the old highway were a Jack in the Box and a strip mall containing a dollar store, a doughnut place, a cigarette place, and a tiny little bank that would never in a million years be busy.
It was a popular pastime to joke about robbing the tiny little bank. You cross the train tracks, you sprint down the old road, you’re in there about 10 minutes, you take the small bills in the register but not the ink packs, you run like hell, you wash the money in another state. But we stopped joking when somebody actually did it. This kid went in, pretended to have a gun, and 20 minutes later he was sitting in his trailer. But he only had $5,000 to show for it, not even enough for a car you don’t have to fix on weekends, and he was on too much meth to get away with it, so he was really just renting the money.
While this was an indefensible crime — you’re not supposed to actually rob the bank, you’re just supposed to talk about it forever — following the story was demoralizing. Forces unknown had taken away our economy and industry and simple lifestyle and to top it all off, damn it, we can’t even get by on robbing banks.
One way of looking at Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie from a Black List–winning script by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, is as a dime-store western of unusual intelligence and subtlety. It hits all the old bullet points. Two brothers own a declining ranch the bank is trying to take away, they steal from the bank to save it, lawmen try to stop them, bodies pile up, and the unforgiving frontier is closing in on everybody. It’s got all the stock themes and lots of the stock dialogue. It’s intelligent because while it uses an old story, it does so with its eyes open, relying on a deep sense of empathy and real human emotion to do its heavy lifting. It’s subtle because it moves slow, without ornament, forcing you to feel its sense of place. It throws you into a landscape and makes you sit there and feel the dirt blow into your eyes.
Another way of looking at Hell or High Water is as a meditation on the America so many of us know but so few of us talk about, the America where people don’t get by, where people rob banks for $5,000. The America of the countless fading towns that leave no cultural footprint, where jobs are minimum-wage and part-time and a day where you find five bucks in a ditch is a good day. Where cities are hours away and vaguely unknowable.
These parts of America are not seen in our movies or TV shows or magazines with any kind of regularity, and if they are they’re generally pathologized (look at how scary meth addiction is) or patronized (look at how sad but proud Appalachia is). We almost never get the chance to see these towns for what they are, without decoration. Hell or High Water does this with shocking grace and civility. By showing without underlining, it makes you feel the desperation of these places. People speed by debt-relief billboards, vacant homes, junkyards, boarded-up strip malls and banks. The overwhelming sense is one of loss. In the rush to modernity, America bypassed towns like these.
It’s extremely tempting in 2016 to call these parts of the country “Donald Trump’s America,” whether one means the Southwest, where the film takes place, or the Rust Belt, or rural Pennsylvania, or South Dakota, or the Mojave Desert, or anywhere the bands don’t play. People here have guns, people here have “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, people here don’t like the government and don’t feel it ever helped them, and people here don’t have much proof that America is great right now. They’re holding on and living hard and their future is uncertain, and lots of them would vote for a man like Trump, who says he knows them.
But that can also be reductive. These parts of the country have been struggling for decades. They’ve been struggling since Eisenhower moved the roads. America has built up its cities and neglected its towns. The future is an urban gray, and this angers and saddens the people who don’t want it. They were angry and sad before Trump and they’ll be angry and sad whether Trump wins or loses.
And these are valid emotions. We overrate our cities. They’ve become shockingly expensive, they’re gentrified into oblivion, their edges have been worn off, they’ve become a hive of electric anxiety. The uniqueness of the American character is found more readily in our small places, and we aren’t doing enough to protect them before we lose them. We need to see what we may lose.
If you actually drive through our country, as Hell or High Water does in a series of progressively shittier cars, you’ll see a thousand tired towns, towns boarded up in places they shouldn’t be boarded up.
It’s fitting that it stars Jeff Bridges, who once upon a time starred in two important films about the struggle to survive in Forgotten America: The Last Picture Show and Fat City. Like Hell or High Water, both films meditated on place, and in that meditation they revealed a lifestyle fading to black.
A lawman on his last go-round, Jeff Bridges is perfect here, as elegiac as the landscapes. He knows his time is up. In possibly the film’s best scene, he just sits in a chair on the sidewalk in a long-dead little town, and no one comes around, and there’s nothing for him to do. There’s nothing for the bank robbers he’s chasing to do either. The sense of emptiness and loneliness is huge.
The characters here are existentially desperate in the same way the small-town people I grew up with were desperate. They wanted to work, but they weren’t really working. They didn’t feel like they had a place as workers anymore. They were usually employed, but the employment was small, inconsequential; it didn’t feel needed. They weren’t adding something to the country’s atmosphere, they were just holding on to the air they had already. When they thought about what work was, they didn’t think about tech start-ups or computers or jobs in buildings with elevators and big windows. An essential sorrow of Hell or High Water’s characters is that they don’t know what work looks like anymore. To them, work isn’t done in the city, under air conditioning. Work is where you swing a hammer.