The sun-drenched landscape of Hell or High Water‘s Texas and the dusty sound of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska come together to make an argument about the crushing weight of working class alienation.
In David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016), a dusty Texas neo-noir, it’s not unusual to see shots of its characters, framed against the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the American southwest. The story goes like this: Toby (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are out to rob several branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, in an effort to save their mother’s property from being foreclosed upon by – you guessed it – Texas Midlands Bank. As actor Kevin Rankin, playing the brothers’ attorney, says, “If that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.” Adding to the urgency is the discovery of oil on the property, making it very valuable to whoever owns it. Toby wants to secure the oil for his family. The bank wants it for themselves.
Against the outlaws, however, is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who follow in the brothers’ wake, trying to pick up the pieces. A taut thriller emerges, complete with several tense sequences inside the banks, a back country shootout packed with more than a few surprises, and a sharp economic critique of the banks that would prey upon working men like Toby.
Hell or High Water is powerful and accomplished enough a film to stand on its own, but its themes and aesthetic choices are enhanced in the context of a similar work – Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska, itself a country/noir infused work set inside a brutal economic meat grinder.
The album was Springsteen’s follow up to The River, a record as starkly different in tone and scope as one could possible imagine, with its twenty tracks, more than half of which are upbeat party songs, although they are contrasted with darker, slower ballads that presage some of Nebraska‘s content. It’s hard to fathom how different the follow up to Nebraska would be, as well – 1984’s mega-hit Born in the USA, characterized by its use of peak-1980s synthesizers and artificial studio production. Sandwiched between these two records is Nebraska, an album with ten tracks, all of which were recorded in Springsteen’s New Jersey farmhouse using a four-track recorder, a guitar, an occasional harmonica, and the singer-songwriter’s hauntingly distant voice.
The album cover’s austere, black and white image, gazing out the front of a car window into endless nothing, matches both the production and the content of the songs that appear on it. Storm clouds hang over the road ahead, but it’s not even certain that the road leads somewhere better, anyway.
The songs themselves aren’t entirely set in Nebraska, but the title track is a retelling of the story of convicted mass murderer Charles Starkweather, who, along with a young female companion, killed eleven people across the Great Plains in 1958, and inspired a Terence Malick movie, Badlands, the title of which Springsteen also lifted for his anthemic first track for 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The remaining tracks, some with the feel of the middle west, or the southwest, and some deliberately name dropping Springsteen’s home state, New Jersey, paint a similar picture of an American landscape shot through with violence, dread, and alienation, much of these originating in the denial of the American dream to the songs’ characters.
Take this song, as strong an economic critique contained in any of Springsteen’s work, in the album’s fourth track, “Johnny 99.”
The song’s character, Ralph, loses his job at the Mahwah, NJ auto plant when ‘they’ close it. He goes on a bender, robs a convenience store and murders a cashier, and gets thrown in jail. Hardly throwing himself before the mercy of the court, he tells the judge:
Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand
Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead
And if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head
Then won’t you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line
The depths of economic violence done to Ralph, rechristened Johnny 99 by the legal system, in a reflection of his sentence (’98 and a year’), have rendered him defiant. He admits his guilt, but turns his focus on the brutality of the world of bankers and auto company executives that have stacked the deck against him. Ralph’s entire existence prior to his crime was defined by what he owed. His life was not his own. In stepping outside that world and turning to violence, he rebels, even though the system he fought against crushes him. He gains some measure of agency in his ownership of his anger – at least he doesn’t owe on that.
There are many other songs on Nebraska that echo these same themes, and even repeat some of the same lyrics from ‘Johnny 99,’ as Springsteen deftly creates a world of echoes and intersections between characters unified by the depths of their desperation and anger, though they never meet.
While the album’s other songs deepen these themes, it’s ‘Johnny 99’ that really resonates heavily with Hell or High Water, mostly because of the presence of criminal activity, and the crushing power of debt in shaping the decisions of the characters in both works. Mackenzie’s film never lets its characters forget that they are drowning – that they owe is an ever-present reminder that their world refuses to allow them the freedom to be who they want to be.
Like many Springsteen songs, even those beyond Nebraska, much of Hell or High Water takes place in cars. The intermittent driving sequences cut between shots of Toby and Tanner in their various getaway cars and signs that dot the highways, billboards advertising debt relief services, as the road itself seems to remind them that they have failed.
The other essential design feature of the driving sequences is Mackenzie’s free-floating, chaotic cinematography. Often, car chases and getaway sequences are full of rapid, manic cutting, as action directors try to generate energy through chopped, frantic editing patterns. Mackenzie resists this temptation, instead opting for longer takes that create energy through his untethered camera placement. One expects the camera to be mounted on the getaway car itself, looking through the windshield, or even placed in the backseat, as it was first done in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950), a revolutionary example of bank robbery cinematography.
Mackenzie doesn’t really rely on either tactic for very long. He mounts the camera on another vehicle, riding parallel with the getaway car, largely matching its speed, but letting the pace slacken and accelerate at intervals. The result is getaway sequences, when coupled with the roar of the engines, that feel like they could careen into true chaos almost at any moment, like the oft-imitated car chase in 1971’s The French Connection (Dir. William Friedkin).
As exciting as the getaway driving sequences are, and as fresh as they feel, they’re shot through with a sense of fatalism. On many occasions, both Toby and Tanner express doubts about the scheme. Early in the film, after the first two robberies, the brothers stop for something to eat at a diner. Here’s a key dialogue exchange:
Toby: You know, you talk like we ain’t gonna get away with this.
Tanner: I never met nobody got away with anything, ever. You?
These characters expect nothing from a world that has betrayed them at every opportunity. The bank, which was supposed to secure their mother’s assets and protect them from ruin not only did neither of those, but actively participated in and sought to profit from her destruction. Even the family itself, with the brothers’ stories of their abusive father, whom Tanner killed, has been a destabilizing force. It’s an ugly, dusty world, and Toby and Tanner fight back against it, as Springsteen’s Nebraska characters do. Those fights, however, come with a cost. Tanner’s last stand atop a ridge is rife with echoes of the conclusion to Raoul Walsh’s 1941 southwest noir High Sierra, with Tanner standing in for Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle, another anti-hero who has his reasons for running afoul of the law.
While the movie really belongs to Toby and Tanner, Jeff Bridges’ performance as Hamilton lends the film a formidable counterweight. Even he, however, is not blind to the economic injustice that leads the Howard brothers into theft. At the scene of the first bank robbery, after joining the investigation, Hamilton sees the bank manager, and, on his way to him, says, ‘That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.’
An even more resonant moment occurs later, as Hamilton and Parker are waylaid in their pursuit of the Howard brothers by a herd of cows crossing the highway, being led by cowboys away from an advancing brush fire. Parker suggests they call someone to come and help. Hamilton shrugs it off, in a line that might sound right at home on any of Nebraska‘s ten tracks: ‘These boys is on their own.’