Hell or High Water Gets That Most Investigations Are Boring

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Because I’m a parent to a small child, I don’t get to the movies as much as I’d like. This means I’m usually months behind on the latest hits. Such is the case with Hell or High Water, last year’s critical darling from director David McKenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan. I missed its theatrical run and all the awards hoopla, but thanks to the magic of premium cable, I was able to watch it 100 times in a row when it premiered on Showtime this week. My verdict? It’s my new favorite movie.

And what’s not to love? Chris Pine’s smoldering steeliness? Ben Foster’s mustache? Enigmatic dialogue dripping with portent? Dammit this movie is great! It’s almost like Sheridan’s films (including Sicario and Wind River, which I’M DYING TO SEE) were created in a lab just to appeal to my sensibilities.

Anyway, on my thirtieth or fortieth rewatch, something stuck out that I thought was worth writing about: the movie nails how slow, methodical, and full of dead-ends the investigative process can be.

The narrative thrust of Hell or High Water is that Toby and Tanner Howard - Pine and Foster, respectively - are trying to save their family ranch from foreclosure the only way they know how: by robbing branches of the very bank that's about to foreclose on them. Toby, an unemployed oil worker, and Tanner, an ex-con, are carrying out early morning heists of branches located in quiet, ramshackle towns like Olney and Archer City because they're less likely to get caught. As their lawyer points out midway through the film, it's a big beautiful middle finger to the banks that have helped level the Texas middle class.

Lawyer

You know, they loaned the least they could. Just enough to keep your mama poor on a guaranteed return. Thought they could swipe her land for $25,000. That's just so arrogant, it makes my teeth hurt. To see you boys pay those bastards back with their own money? Well, if that ain't Texan, I don't know what is. 

Meanwhile, Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are hot on the trail. They spend time interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence as all good cops do, but Marcus realizes the brothers are planning at least one more robbery. So in order to catch them in the act, he picks one branch in Coleman, TX he expects them to rob, and plops himself on a bench right in front of it. Alberto, who Marcus has been mercilessly teasing throughout the film, isn’t happy about it.

Alberto

So, this is your plan? We're just gonna sit here and see if this is the branch they rob next?

Marcus

What would you rather do? You wanna drive 80 miles back to Olney and look for more fingerprints that we ain't gonna find? Or you wanna drive 200 miles back to Lubbock and look at mug shots that don't matter because nobody knows what these sons of bitches look like? Or we can just wait here for them to rob this bank, which is the one thing I'm pretty damn sure they are going to do.

Marcus is right. Sometimes there just aren't any leads to follow. No more interviews to be had. The only thing you can do is wait. At no point in the film (until the climax) does it feel like the Rangers are closing in on the Howard boys. In fact, most of the film it feels like they're hopelessly behind the ball.

After the second robbery, Marcus sits at a table in a diner and chats with some good ol' boys who saw Tanner and Toby rob the bank across the street. There doesn't seem to be any urgency in the way Marcus and Alberto conduct themselves. There's even a little joking back and forth between them and the old-timers. That’s what real investigations look like. It's methodical. One step at a time. Gather the evidence, write it down, move onto the next piece. It's halting and can often feel like wheel-spinning.

I've been an investigator, both as an attorney and as a producer. I've worked on numerous criminal and civil investigations and I can tell you that they are rarely as action-packed and exciting as you see in movies and TV. Most of the time, it’s boring grunt work. In my TV days, I worked on law enforcement shows with both active and retired detectives who all told me the majority of investigations were spent in the office reading documents. A private eye I used to work with told me 90% of his job was sitting in a car waiting for someone to come out of a house. I’ve personally worked on investigations so dull I thought I would literally die of boredom.

Years ago I was interning at the DA’s office in Boston and we were investigating a woman suspected of prescription fraud. Most of my efforts were spent cataloging the hundreds of times she got a prescription and which pharmacies she filled them at. This meant putting all that information into a gigantic Excel spreadsheet. It was painstaking work and it took weeks. But that spreadsheet was key to nailing down her pattern and building a case. We’d never have been able to issue an indictment without it. 

But you know what else? Marcus is also wrong. Turns out, he picked the wrong branch to stake out, a fact he only realizes the next morning when the Howard brothers don’t show up to rob the joint. 

Marcus

I think I got this figured. First two banks, they were Texas Midland banks. All right, there are seven branches altogether. The main branch is in Fort Worth. They're not gonna mess with that. All right? They hit the branch in Olney. They hit the one in Archer City. Then there's the one here.

Alberto

Which they did not hit.

Marcus

Alberto, will you please follow me? Just keep your mouth shut and just listen to what I'm gonna say. There's the one here, then there's the one in Childress. There's the one in Jayton.

Alberto

That one's closed.

Marcus

I know that one's closed! I know that one's closed, Alberto. That's my point. Jayton is closed. That just leaves Post. They're not gonna mess with the bank in Childress, that's a fairly decent-sized town... It means that the only branch that fits the bill is in Post.

Lots of times, you make educated guesses that make sense in the moment but end up being wrong just ‘cuz. In the movie, Marcus figured the brothers would hit the Coleman branch, likely because it was a small one-teller stop, and would draw little attention. And indeed, the scene immediately preceding that showed the brothers arguing over that very issue. But in the harsh light of day, Marcus realized he made the wrong call. Which happens. And then he had to speed across the state to Post, TX to make up for it. 

Investigations aren’t sexy or thrilling or dramatic. There are false starts and bad calls and they’re monotonous and take a long time. And sometimes, they require you to just sit around and wait for something to happen. But if you want to catch your man, sometimes that’s what you gotta do. Commit to the boring stuff no one else wants to do.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA