“Hell Or High Water” – Western Noir about the Working Class and Capitalism

This is barely rewritten from my notes given before the Mesilla Valley Film Society’s March 2023 screening of Hell and High Water for the noir series I’ve been curating.

Tonight’s movie has four Oscar nominations (best picture, best supporting actor, best original screenplay, and best editing.) It was named to the AFI’s top ten list for 2016. It’s got the hunky-ass Chris Pine acting up a storm alongside Ben Foster with Jeff Bridges taking his cantankerous persona from the Coens’ True Grit and bringing it to the modern day! Yet people don’t talk about Hell or High Water nearly as much as they should. Maybe it’s the surface similarity to No Country for Old Men


It’s one of my favorite crime flicks of the last decade or so and it continues to offer new rewards every time I watch it. It’s also a terrific example of how noir can shift to maintain its relevance as a genre.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby

Classic film noir frequently used PTSD from World War II as a plot device. A lot of men, including the writers and directors of those features, experienced shit that no one should ever be exposed to on the battlefield, and they were expected, whether it was explicitly stated or not, to just come home and go back to selling Buicks or reading gas meters or whatever. That failure to take care of those who went to battle is a powerful part of movies like The Blue Dahlia and Crossfire.

That parallel failure of the quote-unquote system to take care of the working class that give everything they have to it is at the core of Hell or High Water. You can tell that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s mad about what’s happening to Americans at the behest of banks and corporate boards Chris Pine’s Toby and Ben Foster’s Tanner may be bank robbers, but they carry a righteous anger that informs the whole movie. It shows up in the graffiti, the roadside signs for debt consolidation and payday loan services, and at the very center of the plot: a desperate need to pay off a reverse mortgage with abysmal terms that the brothers’ mother had to take out to cover her medical debt. 

This movie makes it plain: there’s a war happening right now, in America. The working class is at war with capitalism, and the plutocrats are winning.

Enough of the high-minded film critique. Let’s get to the fast facts we all love.

Before he made the move to full-time writing, Taylor Sheridan was an actor with roles on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars. He wrote Sicario, then Wind River before becoming the boomers’ favorite with the TV series Yellowstone and its prequels, Mayor of Kingstown, and Tulsa King. Originally called Comancheria, Hell and High Water was at the top of Hollywood’s annual Black List of unproduced screenplays in 2012.

David McKenzie, filming in New Mexico.

Director David Mackenzie’s Scottish. He would later direct the Netflix film Outlaw King, which starred Pine as Robert The Bruce. He was joined behind the lens by English cinematographer Giles Nuttgen (who did the infamous Battlefield Earth in 2000). The duo’s European background gave them an outsider view of the US akin to what Wim Wenders and Robby Müller brought to Paris, Texas. Those sunsets we take for granted are a long way away from they get on the moors.

I rattled off the awards it won and the prestige it earned at the beginning. You know you’re in for a good time, so let’s get to it.






One response to ““Hell Or High Water” – Western Noir about the Working Class and Capitalism”

  1. Alan Maddox Avatar

    Thank you so much for shining a light on this film, wasn’t aware of it until you did and have got the blu ray on the way. I’m also a big fan of Lone Star, hadn’t seen it for many years (since initial cinema release) until recently after picking up the Criterion blu ray. I’m a big fan of neo noir and also western noir so hope you can share pieces on more recommendations. I’ll be visiting Texas for the first time later this year so any set around there would be great. I watched The Hot Spot for the first time the other night and really enjoyed that. Thanks from Wolverhampton, England 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *