David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water must be the year’s most unintentionally Christian film. Aimed more at capturing the mood and the cultural atmosphere of rural Texas than it is at making an argument for or against religion, the film ironically succeeds at presenting us with a rich tapestry and various threads of religious iconography, Biblical themes, and a soundtrack (performed partly by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) that not only underscores key plot points, but accurately reflects the inner lives of the conflicted characters, namely a bank robbing fraternal duo hellbent on a mission of self-justification.

Tanner and Toby Howard, portrayed by Ben Foster and Chris Pine respectively, ultimately know the ends really don’t justify the means as they make a circuit stealing from a network of Texas branch banks. But, as with all slaves to sin, they know what’s essentially wrong ethically but can do nothing about their broken condition. And though Foster’s character at one point in the film actually acknowledges his helplessness (more on that later…), both nevertheless justify their sin and continue on a self-righteous pursuit to prove themselves, venerate themselves, and find and define themselves.

The film’s opening shot, skillfully executed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens as a panoramic continuous take, presents us with a visual metaphor for what could be a slightly adjusted, modern retelling of the account of Jesus and the dying thieves as recorded in Luke 23. After a 360-degree rotation that introduces the film’s antagonists (Tanner and Toby) and the lead-up to the heist that sets the narrative in motion, the camera stops moving long enough for us to notice, in the background, a cement block wall in which sits three glass block windows shaped and positioned like the three crosses where our Lord hung between two malefactors. In Luke’s version, one repented and received the promise of eternal life, while the other reviled Jesus, justified himself, and entered death without grace or pardon.

In Mackenzie’s film, however, we have two self-justifying thieves with slightly different motives who face impending judgment and death. Like the criminals in the Lucan account, though, they experience radically different dynamics in relation to a character who represents the right side of the law – namely, Marcus Hamilton (portrayed by Jeff Bridges), the Texas ranger who relentlessly pursues the robbers, seeking to bring them to justice and close one last case before his retirement (yes, even our hero has something to prove).

Fugitives on a Mission of Self-Justification
(ahem…all of us…Romans 3:10-23)

Tanner Howard has recently been released from prison for having murdered his and Toby’s abusive father in order to protect their mother from ongoing domestic violence (See? He’s a good boy, after all!). He is a reckless, hedonistic wild man dead-set on making himself “the enemy of everyone” (an epithet he arrogantly takes upon himself when he learns from a fellow gambler in an Oklahoma casino that this is the actual meaning of the Native American name ‘Comanche’).

Tanner, despite his nomadic, nonchalant, and narcissistic ways, admits his own helplessness as a servant of unrighteousness. He knows sin is fruitless and vain, and he believes life to be equally so.  While discussing the very real probability they will get caught for their crimes, Tanner admits, “I don’t know anyone who ever got away with anything.” His brother, Toby, counters: “Well, then, why’d you agree to it?” Tanner indicates (and Waylon Jennings consequently subtly reiterates the same in the soundtrack) “Because you asked me…” By giving unquestioned devotion to his brother and establishing himself as ‘Lord of the Plains’ (again a reference to the aforementioned Oklahoma casino scene), Tanner attempts to make meaning out of an otherwise meaningless, temporary existence. In other words, “I’m helplessly lost and enslaved to thievery and murder, but at least I can do one good thing to justify myself.”

Toby, on the other hand, reasons that their violent crime spree is justified in its attempt to avenge his late mother, who was exploited by the banks. To provide for his progeny, he intends to take money from the banks and return it in order to clear the family debt and take ownership of their ranch – an heirloom that incidentally happens to sit on several oil reserves. Having no criminal record, Toby is definitely the more polished and relatively stable of the two brothers (sound familiar?). But he also lives on the run, as one of the film’s songs, “Dust of the Chase,” accurately portrays: “I’m lost in the dust of the chase my life has made.”

As the two brothers continue on their quest of self-justification, they bury their getaway cars, evoking man’s natural inclination to hide our sin and to silence our consciences with fig leaves. They wander throughout the dusty Texas landscape, down long stretches of highway, hiding out and finding refuge in borrowed motor homes and hotels. Vagabonds…running ultimately from the accusation of the Law.

Ranger Marcus Hamilton as the Law

Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton reminds us of the God who diligently pursues us in our lost condition, who knows our sin well, and who always presses us regarding the “why?” or rather the motive behind our actions and lawless deeds. Marcus diligently, yet patiently hunts the brothers. He occupies the very spaces where the crimes were committed–robbed banks, local diners with flirtatious waitresses. He reminds us of God walking in the garden “in the cool of the day” at the very first crime scene and consequent cover-up in all of human history.

Marcus wisely and accurately second-guesses the criminals’ next moves, akin to Psalm 139’s affirmation that God knows our thoughts before we think them or the implication of Hebrews 4:12-13, that God knows us and our sin extremely well. The Law sees, considers, and weighs our thoughts, our thinking, and our reasons for why we do what we do. And that’s exactly where the final moment of our narrative take us – a stand-off between the law and the accused.

Spoilers ahead: Prior to the final confrontation, Marcus killed Tanner, handing him eye-for-an-eye justice in retaliation for murder. Of the two brothers, Tanner is clearly the self righteous thief. Incidentally, he is literally on elevated, high ground, proclaiming himself a god as he mutters under his breath, ‘Lord of the Plains’ when Marcus kills him with a bullet soaked in vengeance and deservedness for his sin. In short, Tanner received Law…‘the letter kills’….

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Civilian Marcus Hamilton…as Grace

By the time Marcus and Toby face off, Marcus has retired and become a civilian – no more officially a lawman. Here, Marcus makes himself vulnerable and enters Toby’s family ranch – private property where he literally stands in danger of being killed by Toby. Marcus even affirms that Toby would be fully within his rights if he shot him to death for trespassing.

Not only did God come to the first villains in ‘their’ own home, on ‘their’ cursed turf, but God came down into this world as Jesus, into this dangerous terrain, and made Himself vulnerable to hostile men who would think nothing of nailing Him to a tree in order to stand their ground and justify themselves (um… I’m talking about all of us!).

In this final scene, Marcus affirms that he knows Toby’s crimes, but he presses into him to understand the ‘why?’ After Toby explains his motives and justifies his self-righteous cause before Marcus, in a moment more reminiscent of God’s dialogue with Cain in Genesis 4 than Jesus’ conversation with the penitent thief on the cross, we see the clearest gesture and picture of grace the film has to offer.

The two men threaten to kill one another depending on who proves to be the quicker draw but the providential arrival of Toby’s ex-wife (who, along with his sons, has inherited the ranch) interrupts and breaks the tension. Marcus assures her that he is “an old friend” and that he was just leaving…

Toby indicates that they could finish their conversation later, perhaps, to give Marcus some “peace.” Marcus, however, counters that the one in need of peace is actually Toby. The scene and the film close with an openended-ness that reminds me of God’s dealing with Jonah at the close of Jonah 4, or the ultimate interaction between the landowner and the workers in Matthew 20, or even the ambiguous manner in which Jesus and the rich ruler parted ways.

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Sin Is Its Own Hell

We see the affirmation that not only are sin and life under the law (living to justify ourselves as we flee from and spite the grace of God) vain, but they are their own punishmentsin is its own demerit (thank you, Pastor Patrick Griffiths). It creates its own bondage – we love to enslave ourselves, and, in a sense (speaking loosely here), that turns out to be hell enough.

Marcus Hamilton technically could have further investigated the case and indirectly sought to bring Toby to justice…or, assuming he had been quicker to “reach for his revolver,” he could have completely avenged the brothers’ victims. Instead, Marcus defers immediate judgment and leaves Toby alone to the torture of his own conscience…to the affliction of the work of the Law on his conscience. “This will haunt both of us for the rest of our lives,” Marcus offers as parting words before returning to his newly retired life and leaving Toby to “work out his own salvation.” As viewers, though, we implicitly understand the haunting will be greater for Toby.

Grace as left handed power

Grace doesn’t have to force its hand in order to do its work. Sometimes God in His grace leaves us in our self-constructed prison…that perhaps we might (of course by His grace – the correlation isn’t completely one-to-one here, but there’s enough of a faint echo to suggest grace) come to our senses, and be led by His goodness to repentance. Doesn’t God often leave the conversation open, leave the door open, confronting us with probing questions that work not only on our consciences, but also on our God-given reasoning faculties, enabling us to think through the stupidity of our self-limiting preference for being ‘Lord of the Plains’ instead of resting in His all-sufficient love? Is this not how God confronts Adam in Genesis 3? How he reasons with Jonah instead of crushing him for his self-righteous tantrum in Jonah 4? How he meets and engages Elijah as he arrogantly pouts in the wilderness in 1 Kings 19? How the father engages the elder son who prefers to stew outside of the festivities while lamb-chops roast on the grill in Luke 15? Grace doesn’t have to have the last word. Grace is the last word.

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What Ground Defines Us?

Speaking of the last word, the film’s last shot focuses on the ground while the closing credits roll. Mackenzie is focusing our attention on the land and the oil beneath it that ultimately represent economics…i.e. money insofar as it tends to represent the true currency of self-identification in this film and in life. All the characters in this film are competing for the land: Toby justifies his crimes by explaining that he doesn’t want to pass along the sickness and curse of poverty to his offspring. Earlier in the film, Marcus’ partner explains that their ancestors fought over the land, too.

Money trumps and yet defines culture. It supersedes and transcends all questions of identity as defined along cultural, ethnic, and even familial lines. It becomes the common denominator and preferred set of fig leaves for sinners living after the Fall. All we have to do is consider the intersecting lines of self-definition that pervade the patriarch Abram’s story and lineage – way back in Genesis, the original story of wanderers, of drifters in desert wildernesses, of people disputing inherited land, defining themselves by ‘tongue,’ ‘clan,’ ‘tribe,’ ethnicity, language, and yet seeking redemption (and just check out the lyrics to Townes Van Zandt’s “Dollar Bill Blues,” one of many the film’s songs concerning a conflicted sinner’s search for redemption).

Fast forward to the New Testament and we see self-righteousness and life under the law implicitly called ‘earthly treasure’ (Matt 6, for example) and set squarely against the righteousness of Christ, who is true heavenly treasure. We either value our own goodness (because we are all Tanner and Toby…and Marcus) or Jesus’ goodness for us as revealed in the gospel. The final shot of the ground in this film provokes us to consider the ground on which we stand – is it the ground of self-righteousness or a better foundation?

Thankfully, the gospel in fact offers us better ground. The burial ground where our Savior lay after bearing the curse of our spiritual poverty: self-righteousness. The ground whence He rose, appeared to witnesses, later ascended, and through the church offered forgiveness to his enemies (see Acts 2 and 3). He still offers grace today…even to unrepentant thieves like Tanner, like Toby…like you and like me.