In the just-released Going in Style, a diner waitress expecting her 15 percent tip instead receives a large stack of Franklins -- a gift from a guy who’s just robbed a bank.
If that sounds familiar, it means you also saw Hell or High Water, which features a similar moment.
So, you might say, does Robin Hood. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor isn’t especially innovative, but what you see in Going in Style and Hell or High Water is something more. Something that reflects the way Hollywood bank-heist movies endure by speaking to the times in which they are made -- the generational turmoil that fueled Bonnie and Clyde, the blue-collar grievances that drive these recent movies.
Going in Style is a silly comedy, Hell or High Water an Oscar-nominated drama. In both cases, though, the outsize tip reads as a gesture of solidarity -- working people looking out for one another, because larger economic forces have ceased to do so.
Going in Style is a sitcom take on that idea. Three retirees -- Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin -- screwed out of their pension fund avenge the situation by robbing the bank involved. The men worked hard and counted on a pension that disappears in a corporate takeover. They can’t pay mortgages or medical bills. Caine’s character has borrowed against his house to pay for his granddaughter’s education.
As it happens, this reflects reality -- seniors borrowing to pay for the education of children and grandchildren account for a sizable portion of outstanding student debt. The movie, though, is a lark, satisfied to serve as a genial forum for beloved elderly stars.
The themes are treated more seriously in Hell or High Water, the story of a Texan named Toby (Chris Pine) about to see his ramshackle family ranch absorbed by the bank that steered his mother into a questionable mortgage. He intends to pay off the debt by robbing (along with his brother, played by Ben Foster) several branches of the very same bank, a single-day spree that forms the spine of the movie.
Every outburst of action (it’s an open-carry state), though, is paired with quieter scenes that ground the movie in a hard-nosed economic reality, and the movie shows an astute grasp of the forces in play -- the lending chicanery of the 2000s, the shale boom, the way all of these things conspired to draw starker lines between rich and poor, winners and losers.
In Hell or High Water, everyone knows what side of the divide he or she is on.
After Pine's Toby impulsively tips a waitress with an enormous sum, she’s met by a lawman (Jeff Bridges) who wants to seize the money as evidence. A great scene follows -- she tells him to flake off, lecturing the sheriff on the law, informing him she has her own mortgage to pay off. The actress is Katy Mixon (ordinarily known for comedic turns on Mike & Molly and American Housewife), and if there were an Oscar for two minutes of screen time, she would win hands down.
She won’t give up the money, or Toby, a kindred spirit who later compares poverty to a “disease passing from generation to generation.”
He intends to give the money to his ex-wife and kids, to break the cycle. His ex-con brother, who’s in it for the violent mayhem of the spree itself, meets a different end, providing echoes of Bonnie and Clyde, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, making the rounds on AMC, and a return to theaters later this summer.
That 1967 film recounts the exploits of the Depression-era Barrow gang, but, like Hell or High Water, it reflects its time. Director Arthur Penn called it “a film of the 1960s, not the 1930s.” The movie’s startling (in its day) violence shocked audiences, as did the way its characters reveled in the bloody chaos they created. Penn made his lead characters (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) glamorous, then martyred them, in a way that caught fire with younger audiences. Some of that counterculture energy found its way, in 1975, into Dog Day Afternoon, but by then it was on the wane, a mood that suffused Sidney Lumet's film.
Was there a definite example from the 1980s? This was the era of the savings-and-loan crisis, and Hollywood seemed confused by the idea, as happened in some cases, of bankers robbing their own banks. (Mr. Barrow will see you now.)
A standout from the 1990s is Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break -- holdup men in Reagan and Carter masks lending weird iconography to her oft-imitated robbery sequence (imitated, in fact, by Going in Style).
Movies like Bigelow’s became known for the virtuosity of their action, a trend that reached its zenith in Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat, which the director will reissue next month in a tuned-up digital version. His urban combat shootout (later repeated, astonishingly, by actual bandits) remains an action-movie high-water mark.
But Heat was resolutely devoid of larger context. You believe the movie’s mastermind (Robert De Niro) when he admits he steals because he’s good at it, doesn’t know how to do anything else, and doesn’t want to.
Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies is a more interesting case. Made at the height of the banking meltdown/recession, it presented John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as a man overmatched by a growing FBI surveillance apparatus, and national, syndicated, technology-enabled criminal enterprises that increasingly saw freelance desperadoes like Dillinger as an obsolete nuisance.
The movie was already anticipating a new kind of heist. We saw it in Adam McKay’s 2015 The Big Short -- math geeks and oddball investors deduce that banks have outsmarted themselves with financial derivatives, and they design trades that take the banks for billions (legally, if not morally).
These days, the big scores belong to the guys running hedge funds.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a throwback, neo-western feel to Hell or High Water. Bank robbers, the film suggests, are soon to be part of a mythic past, like cowboys robbing a stage. Financial transactions move online, the economy runs on debit and credit, bank offices become restaurants.
Meanwhile, the same egghead echelon that championed The Big Short’s synthetic derivatives now has a new idea, already being tried in India: a cashless society.
One of its goals: Get rid of the underground economy.
Of course they want to get rid of it.
For many Americans, it’s the only one that pays.