Quick Answer: Hell or High Water offers thought-provoking commentary on rural America and on the unbridled capitalism and avarice that is hurting the United States. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan reference the 2008 bailout repeatedly throughout the film to show that the biggest criminals in the country are the people who run the banks, not the people who rob them.
Hell or High Water (2016), the Western crime drama directed by David Mackenzie and written by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who go on a crime spree in order to save their family farm, while an aging ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), try to track them down. Although primarily an entertaining heist thriller, Hell or High Water offers intelligent commentary on rural America and on the effects of unbridled capitalism and avarice on the people of the United States.
Hell or High Water pays tribute to revisionist outlaw-focused Westerns like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), as well as the more recent No Country for Old Men (2007), in examining what drives people to become outlaws and how criminal actions can sometimes seem justified due to motivations like extreme economic hardships. Like No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water is a neo-Western thriller that features a morally ambiguous protagonist and a curmudgeonly yet noble sheriff. Still, an even more apt comparison could be the 1971 classic The Last Picture Show, which coincidentally also starred Jeff Bridges. Both films spotlight an economically hurting area of Texas while serving as searing love letters to the Lone Star state. Both are lean, character-centric dramas laced with an underlying social critique.
Brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) are living in an economically devastated area, desperately trying to make ends meet. While Tanner is a dangerous and unhinged individual who murders cops and innocent civilians, Toby is a kind and reasonable man who wants to provide for his family. The loving interactions between Toby and his son further demonstrate Tony's caring personality, a characterization that shows how people’s actions can be shaped by their circumstances. Toby wasn’t born with the volatile, antisocial disposition of his brother, but he is driven to robbery due to external factors outside of his control.
Sheridan's script, written in 2012, makes several references to the economic bailout in 2008, which kept big banks in business but did little to stop the devastation of local economies across the country. Even in the first opening minutes of the film the bailout is directly referenced by a spray painting on a wall, reading, "Where's my bailout?" The reminders of the 2008 bailout serve to somewhat justify the immoral actions of the brothers, or at least prevent us from categorically condemning them, while suggesting that the biggest criminals in the country are the people who run the banks, not the ones who rob them.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water (2016)
Minor characters throughout the film, like the down-on-her-luck waitress who flirts with Toby, also chime in about the decaying state of a rural America left behind by failed economic policies. The social commentary of the film is made explicit when Birmingham's Alberto, a ranger of both Mexican and Native American descent, comments that while the white English settlers took the land from the Native Americans, the land that once belonged to the people is now owned by the rich bankers on Wall Street. Alberto’s comments are timely in a year when big banks and economic policies that favor the wealthy establishment are hot button topics in a turbulent presidential election.
In combining its classical Western stylization, revisionist Western themes and awareness of our current political climate, Hell or High Water highlight its audience's ideas of how America once was and how the country is today.