Hell or High Water (2016)

Surfers seeking the ultimate adrenaline rush. Bored lovers on the path towards mutually assured destruction. Payback against a rival casino owner and the new guy to your old girl. Simple adherence to a professional code and a particular set of skills ill suited for other lines of work. To quote Jay-Z, in one of his weakest guest verses: “what do these things all have in common?”

These are of course the motivating circumstances behind Point Break, Bonnie and Clyde, Ocean’s 11, and Heat, respectively — four free-wheeling heist flicks that breezily tell the viewer how it went down, with varying levels of consequence. This quartet is, for the most part, escapist entertainment; even the movie that launched the New Hollywood mania, though adapted from the pages of history, is an exaggerated tale of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, mythic figures who couldn’t sit further from representing a realistic depiction of crime or the socioeconomic factors lurking in the wings behind a certain caste of legal violations.

A different flavor of bank robbery — and crucially, a contrasting type of thief — are due for close and careful examination. Four divergent movies rise to the surface of the mind, handpicked as opposite case studies to the four cinematic classics listed above, an alternative canon of necessity and desperation while in pursuit of the American dollar: “Bankrobber's Realism”, not in style but in subtext.

For varying reasons that will be detailed below, this motion picture Mount Rushmore includes Set It Off, Dead Presidents, Hell or High Water, and Dragged Across Concrete, engraved and chiseled as its faces. As a playful antidote to overt self-seriousness, this essay will take the structure of what it describes, indulging in the tropes of a grand group grift usually planned during a montage in the middle of the movie: Setup, Crew, Job, Getaway.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Set ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down

Traditionally, The Setup is a series of converging storylines that occupy the first quarter of a film, chronicling the ills and woes of individual lives as motivation for the heists to come. The connection threading between this “Bankrobber's Realism” of the heist genre is a set of environmental factors creating and perpetuating lower-class status for the characters, a deck of cards badly dealt plus some hot glue holding their place at the poker table.

Hell or High Water (2016) finds brothers Toby and Tanner Howard at the foul end of a reverse mortgage, the livelihood of their ranch in jeopardy due to debt accrued on behalf of the predatory lenders at Texas Midlands Bank — the perfect target for petty theft in this two-handed twist on Robin Hood, stealing from institutional crooks with a left hook while shaking hands with the right, palming the financial organization a payout cribbed from its own coffers. Set It Off (1996) drops its four poor leads — Frankie, T.T., Cleo, and Stony — at a crossroads of other challenges, including an unfair career termination, a cared-for toddler confiscated by Child Protective Services, a janitorial position with paltry wages and miscreant management, and a racially-charged case of mistaken identity that results in officer-induced sibling sidewalk murder.

Set It Off (1996)

The angle of race is explored in further shades with Dead Presidents (1995), a demonstration of how, when given the choice of a college education after growing up middle-class in the Bronx, enlisting to fight in the Vietnam War is objectively the worst option. After a tour of combat, Anthony and his squad-mates are in the same position where they started: still in dire need of the greenbacks that give the film its title, but now with the hellish images of butchered and burned bodies seared into each man’s frontal cortex, courtesy of the military-industrial complex.

The most complex circumstances at play are the interlocking factors that produce the protracted, hour-long heist sequence that closes out Dragged Across Concrete (2019). For better or for worse, the script distills the social situations of its characters — a mother forced into prostitution, a wife with a chronic disability, and the limited opportunities available to both those recently released from prison and those who violate the law to send them there — down to individual responsibility as a result of questionable decision-making. This ideal is framed as liberating, one perfect crime as the keys to the kingdom of a higher quality of life, breaking the law to break the chains of class immobility through the power of one’s own actions, or in the words of a single piece of the ensemble cast puzzle: “we have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.”

Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

The Crook, The Thief, Their Strife & Their Cover

Despite the practical fashion choices of each film’s armed robbers — black sunglasses and straight black wigs, faces painted white like mimes, black balaclavas and black hoods, classic black ski masks and the exaggerated features of whiteface — the morality of these movies lives in the gray space in between. The pursuit of “happiness” — when happiness is a two- or four- or six-way split of the single duffel bag of loot, paid for in blood — affects each tribe unilaterally: urban, rural, East Coast, West Coast, men, women, black, white, cops, crooks, plus veterans and blue collar workers too. Everyone’s gotta eat, even if their respective motives can sometimes contradict each other.

In Set It Off, Vivica A. Fox’s Frankie provides a representative example of the lot and a meaningful chance to examine this trade-off: improvement in social conditions sought out at the expense of others, setting aside the fact that property stored in FDIC-insured vaults is guaranteed up to $250k, grand larceny in this case a more or less victimless theft. Frankie isn’t a life-long crook, chomping on each and every chance to bend someone over a table and pilfer the contents of their wallet. Her decision to turn to crime as the cure for socio-economic gridlock is born from a man in her neighborhood’s desire to do the same, a robbery gone wrong at her bank of employment that costs her a job simply for recognizing the guy with the gun from around the block. His choice forces her choice, and there’s a chance that hers will have similar effects after the credits roll, perpetuating a cycle of poverty-inspired pillaging.

Set It Off (1996)

Diametrically opposed to the spoils-seekers are the long arms of law enforcement, incentivized to capture or kill, protection for the centrally-organized credit lines of corporate interests — most of the time. As mentioned above, the morally-ambivalent melting pot of Dragged Across Concrete includes disgraced detectives as an important ingredient, though their forced leave of absence from the force after using excessive force makes them an outlier.

While the needless on-the-job cruelty employed by Ridgeman and Lurasetti doesn’t exactly elicit sympathy, their mistakes place them and their blameless family units in the same position as anyone else of lesser means and few prospects. Too-specific experience and smudged professional reputations prevent the possibility of another line of work, and the knocking of the bill-collectors maintains the need to provide. Their fall from power is a crucial example in the canon of “Bankrobber's Realism”, as it defies conventional pieties about “good guys” and “bad guys” of public opinion, acting as an equalizer through shared status as the ants at the wrong end of the modern, exponential curve of pecuniary inequality.

Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

One (Or Four) Last Job(s)

Despite violent crime’s frequent association with the dark of night, all of these heists take place in the cold light of day, to comply with limited bank hours — no holiday stick-ups either. The significant differences between the four featured features come in the form of formal choices, with each entry leaning into a particular set of stylistic flourishes to both move the action forward and comment on the underlying economic conditions.

Set It Off is the most conventional in its cinematic choices. Director F. Gary Gray uses a sweeping crane shot to establish the scene, gliding over the big, bold letters of Balboa Savings & Loans, shooting a homeless interaction in the foreground that functions as a visual sleight-of-hand while Stony, Frankie, and T.T. are seen entering the bank in the background. Rapid cuts back and forth between the women swinging their guns left and right and hostages ducking to the floor accelerate the pacing.

A slow motion tilt up indicates a shift in the narrative as the gang of friends discovers that the exterior of the bank is now crawling with cops, before a practical stunt from Queen Latifah’s Cleo’s driving double obliterates three walls with the getaway car. By invoking standard camera coverage that can be found in many other movies of this stripe, Gray legitimizes the lower-class concerns of these [at the time] unlikely antiheroes of heist history, cementing their place with humor and heart among the cocky grins and swagger of this traditionally male world.

Set It Off (1996)

Hell or High Water opens with an elegant long shot to indicate director David Mackenzie’s tighter, more controlled style: eighty seconds spent panning horizontally across the vista of a small town abandoned by the industries of yesteryear — dispensing information about time, place, and fiscal motive by way of a bitter graffitied statement that reads “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US” — before the camera snakes behind a woman as she approaches her workplace to unlock the front door with a gun glued to the back of her neck. A steadicam drifts through the interior spaces of the small branch, willing to hold on shots longer before switching to another angle: the two robbers and their single hostage lie in wait for the sole keeper of the safe code to arrive, director refusing to cut as manager moves closer from the far edge of the frame, walks inside, and says “g’morning” before receiving a pistol-whip to the jaw.

In Dead Presidents, directors Albert and Allen Hughes lift the lever of screen violence a few notches in their depiction of a pre-bank heist, an armored truck hold-up at the wee hour of the morning pick-up. A high angle shot of the alleyway makes space for the American flag tucked in the corner of the frame, flowing in the wind, in case the milieu of post-military abandonment was momentarily forgotten. The camera rack-focuses between the painted faces of partners, captures crucial reveals through rear view mirrors, then moves from wide to medium to close as the tension builds before the blanks start firing and the squibs go off.

This film’s climatic stick-up sequence is a case study in Moore’s Law: more guards than anticipated creates comical amounts of red flowing from people’s scalps, noses, and mouths; more nitroglycerin than intended causes the steel-walled automobile, its cash cargo, and the characters’ hope for economic stability to erupt in flames; and more brutal, intimate violence concludes the action-packed events as a Crown Victoria cop car pins the court jester of the group against a blood-stained brick wall.

Dead Presidents (1995)

Dragged Across Concrete slides the savage scale to its breaking point, battering the viewer with gruesome dismemberment, fleshy explosions, and the implication of far worse, packing a punch with a fist full of glass shards that’s as crunchy as the film’s title. Director S. Craig Zahler’s modern masterpiece straddles the fence to offer the best of both worlds with its central setpiece: starting as a bank heist and ending in the underbelly of an armored car, exploring what two sides of the law have in common in a country decimated by rising unemployment and exploding costs of living. These components are fused with a hangout flick that takes time to linger on the most minuscule moments, such as a man devouring a breakfast sandwich bite by excruciating onscreen bite.

The glacial pacing, as well as a lack of music cues to hold the audience’s hands, creates what is almost a deconstruction of a traditional thriller, disrupting the narrative flow to make time for critical questions — what created the need that precipitated this carnage? How exactly did we wind up here? — while watching. This postmodern approach, like the vile cabal of initial robbers who use tape-recorded instructions for the bank’s staff, is deployed for disturbing effects, demonstrating the bleak costs of trying to rise from the fiscal caste of birth with a punishing lack of mercy. The complexity of the written word is matched beat for beat in the film’s visual staging: wide-angle compositions that incorporate impressionistic lighting, dashes of yellow and blue with plenty of shadow, a grindhouse-dipped Gregory Crewdson photograph.

Dead Presidents (1995)

To Get Away Inside Your Car

No one makes it out alive. Whether a potent piece of practical advice or a hackneyed observation communicating little, this notion is nearly proven right by the conclusion of each entry of this alternate canon of the heist genre. Grand finales of decades past were mere movie endings: retirement on a beach in Maui with a guilt-free conscience or narrow escape with a hard-earned lesson on how wrong it is to steal from others. Perhaps inspired by the bleak outlook on the future of human civilization — by way of some combination of environmental degradation and a global monoculture of industry, advertising, and digital feudalism — that trickled into mass media during both the 1990s and the 2010s, “Bankrobber's Realism” — too disparate to call a movement, too salient to call a coincidence — doesn’t traffic in artificial resolutions, ending either in death, dismemberment, or despair. The characters are neither condemned nor rewarded for their choice of crime.

Out of nineteen total robbers, only three escape with their lives and their liberty — to hide out south of the border, filled with regret; to put a down payment on a ritzy mansion, a hollow look lurking behind the eyes; or to return to a salvaged family home, alone, a brother and a best friend sacrificed to pursue this goal. Despite their contextually superficial differences of occupation and identity, and their common cause of desperately needing the coin for basic needs, the remaining sixteen who plot and pursue the payout understand intimately that bullets are a neutral force while getting shot in the chest, shot in the side, shot in the back, shot in the head, shot in the legs, shot in the groin, crushed by two tons of moving metal, or sentenced to fifteen years to life — a different sort of demise, providing a forty-square-foot chamber of reflection within the bowels of the brutal prison system and/or cursing the individual to the high likelihood of becoming a repeat offender.

A bleak lesson is born: try to strike first and rip off the state through plans either well executed or hastily thrown together, and the state strikes back, ripping off both arms and slicing your measly purse strings so the coins clatter to the blood-soaked asphalt around your lifeless corpse. There's a good reason the two conditions connected in the old adage are death and taxes.

Set it Off (1996)

Ryan is a filmmaker and critic whose writing has appeared in Blood Knife, Zapier, and elsewhere. He is currently developing a novel approach to his first feature-length film project. Sign up for his newsletter at flickpicking.org for weekly movie picks, production updates, and more.