Hell or High Water: A Fun, Dumb Movie

by Kevin D. Williamson

I finally got around to watching Hell or High Water, a modern bank-robber movie set in my native West Texas. Jeff Bridges gives an entertaining performance, although his accent left me wishing for subtitles — and I grew up in the city out of which his character works. But it’s a fun and sometimes moving film, and it is entertaining when somebody makes a movie about the world from which you come.

But, man, is this movie stupid.

Here’s the plot: There are two brothers, one of them an okay guy who never amounted to much of anything (played by Chris Pine, whose direction consisted of “Stand there and look handsome”) the other a squirrelly, recently released career criminal played by Ben Foster. Their mother has recently died, and her estate owes $40,000 in reverse-mortgage debt and back taxes on the poor little ranch full of skinny cattle they’ve inherited. But, good news: An oil company has discovered a whole bunch of the stuff on their land, has completed its geological survey, and is ready to offer them a lease that will pay them $50,000 a month or more.

So the brothers do the obvious thing and begin a string of armed bank robberies (eventually homicidal) in order to pay off that reverse mortgage.

Okey-dokey.

First, a gun-nerd objection. (You knew this was coming.) One of the film’s more entertaining (and true to life, I think) scenes finds the brothers almost dying in a hail of civilian gunfire after a botched robbery alerts the heavily armed locals, who return fire and then hop in their pick-up trucks and give pursuit. The dim-witted career-criminal brother solves this problem by . . . laying down suppressive fire with a fully automatic M4-style rifle he has in the back of his Bronco. Never mind the usual objections — that these things are rare, and almost never used in crimes — the whole point of this caper is to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars, and this guy is driving around with a $10,000 rifle in his truck. That and the other guns they use, plus some earth-moving equipment and cattle-ranching gear they have, and a few other odds and ends probably could have been sold for enough to pay off that dinky bank loan ricky-tick.

But you know what would have been even easier than that? Going into basically any financial institution in the world with those oil-lease documents and saying, “Hello, there, Mr. Banker! I am about to have a passive income of $600,000 a year and would like a $40,000 loan to pay off the lien on my property until that first monthly check comes in. Would you like to be my banker?” Hell, they probably could have asked the oil company for a $40,000 advance to pay off the lien and clear the way for the lease. What’s $40,000 up front on a multi-million-dollar oil-leasing deal? I’ve seen drilling outfits spend tens of thousands of dollars just to pay nearby residents to go away on vacation while they’re putting in gas wells, because it was cheaper than building the sound barriers they’d be required to put in if the nearby homes were occupied.

In the film, the devious owners of the local bank are plotting against the brothers (they hope to foreclose on the land and get that oil income for themselves) and that’s fair enough. In West Texas, we are sometimes a little behind the times when it comes to some of the creature comforts of modern consumer society: It was forever before we got a Starbucks in Lubbock. But you know what we do have? Banks. Banks and banks and banks and banks. Goodness, but we have banks, banks on every corner. And here is where our old friend capitalism makes your evil banker plot-line a little complicated: Even if the evil local banksters were plotting against our plucky heroes, there’s always Wells Fargo, or Chase, or Happy State Bank (which, seriously, exists). In Muleshoe, you’ve got First Bank of Muleshoe and Muleshoe State Bank. Consumer choice for the win.

But of course the world is full of evil bankers and every third-rate criminal has access to the same arsenal as your typical Navy SEAL. That’s what the best creative minds of Hollywood come up with.

One other weird thing: Every third person in this movie is Comanche, and everybody in this version of West Texas knows enough about Comanche people to have opinions about them, to make and appreciate Comanche jokes, etc. I lived there 20-something years and still spend a fair amount of time there, and I don’t think I ever met a single person who identified as Comanche. (I knew one Choctaw family and a whole bunch of vague, Elizabeth Warren types, each inevitably descended from a “Cherokee princess.”) The only Comanche the typical person in that world has ever heard of is Quanah Parker. There are fewer than 20,000 Comanche people in the United States, and Native Americans as a whole make up less than 1 percent of the population in Texas. But, I get it, cowboys and Indians and all that.

Like I said: Fun movie. Fun, but dumb. 

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