Hell or High Water: a Western for Modern America 

(Streaming available on Netflix)

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97% 

When you think of a Western, what springs to mind? Is it something that you watch for five minutes on Channel 5 on Sunday afternoon – the only thing that actually stops you from procrastinating your work?

If so, then fair enough. To me, Westerns can inevitably charge towards a simple conclusion where the white lead kills the Native Americans – and there’s very little morally redeeming about it, or particularly surprising. 

So how do you navigate a Western in a modern world, where the peril comes from bankers in cushy offices, not from cowboys, and the Western setting now claims to be a tolerant society? Navigating these complexities in a new context is certainly a unique and interesting prospect. To be able to craft a film that appeals to our contemporary economic frustrations whilst retaining the action and rugged individualism of the West was always going to be a challenge, but getting it right would mean we could better connect with the challenges of that Western period, and truly understand what core values drive us through different generations and situations.   

Hell or High Water does this very successfully. Firstly, the lead is no longer a callous prospector looking for gold, but two brothers (one of whom is Chris Pine, a man built to play the reluctant, modern cowboy), trying to pay off a bank loan to protect their family ranch after the 2008 financial crisis. The film starts with a frantic scene in which these two masked men are portrayed as quintessential, if scrappy and unsure, criminals. It is only as the film proceeds that we see the complexity of the world they live in, and the awkward morality that arises when we have competing goals of family, ‘fairness’ and self-protection. Having Chris Pine’s brother, a more assured and experienced criminal, as a vision of what Pine may become if he continues down this path, gives us a better idea of how this cowboy mentality has increasingly become the exception in the modern world, rather than the norm.

Like any good Western, there are two sides of the law involved, and both are played to perfection in this thriller. Jeff Bridges (who you may recognise from The Big Lebowski) plays the sheriff assigned to track down these two brothers; he is brilliant as the gruff ranger with retirement looming, but he is nothing without his half Mexican, half Native American partner (Gil Birmingham). The addition of the Mexican heritage imbues modern day Texas into this Western, and the reluctant but somewhat brotherly relationship between the two reflects the complexity of modern-day race relations in Texas.

I have been to Texas myself and the appreciation of the growing role of Hispanics in Texan society is a refreshing addition to this Western; moreover, the deep bond between the two rangers underneath the racially charged antipathy between them is an accurate reflection of the complex relationship Texas has with its growing racial diversity, and its difficulty in navigating its newfound interdependence. This is even more so in the Texas depicted in the film, with its focus on traditional ranches and small towns with gun-wielding civilians (something that seems anachronistic, but I assure you is not) illustrating how the old and new in Texas are slowly and begrudgingly intermeshing.

The film symbolises the desire for many Texans to retain the raw values of a cowboy, but a difficulty at knowing where to redirect these emotions. Finding similarities in the way banks were ‘robbing’ people of their land with the property wars that epitomised the early American West allows the lead characters to redirect the desire to be a cowboy at a modern adversary. The irony of this, and something to take away from the film, is that stealing from the bank is usually to pay back money you owe to the bank. This inevitable, faceless entity is perhaps the true enemy of the film, as Hell or High Water’s true murderers are anti-heroes, individuals who even the supposed ‘good guys’ seem reluctant to admonish. 

Often Westerns fail from being too morally definite; especially as a lot of their moral reasoning can be highly awry. The ability of this Western to paint both sides as victims of their situation rather than intrinsically good or evil vividly propels Hell or High Water into its modern context and makes us root for all involved. This is what I think makes this film so good – it provides the distance of a Western whilst making us feel like we can truly understand the motives of the characters and how they are still relevant in our modern world. 

As simple as the concept appears to be, the characters are boosted by fantastic cinematography, which captures the bleak beauty of the open plains, and how this scarcity and opportunity shapes the lives of the people living there. So, if you want to escape Oxford city life for 2 hours and imagine yourself as a modern cowboy, I strongly recommend putting the essay aside for a moment, and finding some escapism in this Western World that is more familiar than you’d think.