Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 4:01 pm | Fair 60º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Hell or High Water’

3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

What do you do when you are desperate and have the generational “sickness” of poverty? When the economic systems are predatory and you feel the depression not only financially but emotionally? To what lengths would you go to free your own children from this multigenerational economic and social dysfunction?

Those are the moral, ethical and systemic questions addressed in David Mackenzie’s powerful and iconic film Hell or High Water. A masterpiece of symbolic messages and excellent acting, we become immersed in the struggle.

Set in the barren region of West Texas and Oklahoma (although filmed in New Mexico), the story is written by Taylor Sheridan and won the 2012 Black List award. Since his family came from this drought-ridden region and being impacted by an uncle who was a marshal in central Texas for 34 years and forced to retire at 65, his authentic and intimate knowledge of this story is obvious.

The fictional tale concerns the two Howard brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), whose mother has just died after a debilitating illness.

Tanner, having spent years in prison first for killing their abusive father and then for bank robbery, is invited by his little brother to change the fortunes of his nephews and Toby’s sons. Their plan is to rob the very bank that has been legally robbing their mother of the family ranch through a mortgage. Then pay back the bank with money laundered through a casino and therefore gain the oil money that is going to produce a windfall for generations to come.

The officers who take on the task of finding and arresting these two are an almost-to-retire, recently widowed Texas ranger named Marcos Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his assistant, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Using racial stereotypes to tease Parker for his Native American and Mexican heritage, Hamilton is an inappropriate has-been but with exceptional policing instincts and experience. Widowed and forced into retirement, it is clear that Hamilton has no other purpose than his work and is faltering in his own life.

We won’t spoil how all of this works together to create a powerful piece of art, but the questions still remain at the end of the film. The happy ending of an oil-rich discovery is not at all common, so when the poor and powerless are being abused by the very banks and businesses that are populated by their neighbors, how do they survive?

The legal profits that are gained by defaulting mortgages on drought-caused farm and ranch losses are unconscionable at a human level, and the generational poverty so many people experience is an ever increasing deep hole that no one wants for their children.

Addictions and criminal imprisonments are disproportionate to the poor as their despair seeks relief and solutions. How does “justice for all” find its place?

Films like this are a social mirror that haunt us as the artists take us into places and into lives of real people trying to make their way in a very broken world.

The fact that there is no church or faith community providing hope and assistance in the film is not indicative of Texas, but its absence makes the story’s dysfunction all the more obvious. It is this absence of a moral and righteous solution that makes this film a powerful, depressing portrayal of life.


» Multigenerational poverty is a primary difficulty in human flourishing. Providing government assistance to just survive in that poverty seems to only reinforce that the next generation remains poor.  However, ignoring the need of our fellow human beings is inhumane. What do you think is a possible solution? What could you do to help?

» The absence of hope except through criminal action seems to be accepted by the townspeople in the café who are unconcerned that the bank is being robbed and explain that the bank has been robbing them for years. Where do you think a depressed people can find hope? How does that hope become a tangible solution to financial need?

» Do you think most banks are like those portrayed in this West Texas tale, or are they partners with individuals and businesses in accomplishing prosperity? Why do you answer as you do?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >