A Critical Essay on the 2016 film Hell or High Water
Late summer of 2016 was, for many Americans, the darkest of times. A new wave of political discourse had emerged in the wake of a new election for President, a divide over the future of economic policy stood at the center for droves of voters on both sides. Eight years had passed since the onset of what came to be known as “The Great Recession” had demolished the lives of a people duped by poorly regulated banking system knotted together with an even more poorly regulated mortgage-lending system. Common people, millions of them, had succeeded in securing a place to call their own. They had attained the very American Dream the powers that be had been selling them their whole lives, only to watch it slip through their fingers. Homeowner after homeowner defaulted on loan after loan, loans that had become worthless to anybody but the banks who had gobbled them up, covered them with shifty accounting and insurance practices, and sold them to the highest bidder, another bank officer or hedge fund manager. This banking bourgeoisie, this controlling class of wealthy geniuses of finance and economics, cashed in its chips. Many of them walked away unscathed. The Other, members of that working class who trusted them to help fulfill their American Dream, lost nearly everything.
Phrases like “too big to fail” and “inside job” entered the cultural discourse. They became titles of movies. The discussion raged on for years through the spawning of more feature films, documentaries, podcasts, as well as the incessant punditry of cable news, talk radio, and social media. Talk of greed and deregulation created even greater divides between the powerless and the powerful as new, modern Democrat took the Presidency. Regulation became a reality in some arenas. The nation as a whole recovered. But it wasn’t enough.
Now, over a decade later, everyday Americans are still picking up the pieces. For all of President Obama’s trying and succeeding in many areas, backed by the power in his statement of assurance in the final Economic Report of his administration that “our economy has emerged as the strongest and most durable in the world. By nearly every economic measure, America is better off than when I took office,” many Americans are still simply living in fear of the hegemony that still exists in the tie between the American government and the single most important aspect of the American superstructure, its banks. This fear draws no party line, despite the divides that still exist. These are the divides that came in that dark late summer of 2016, when Donald Trump was in a heated political battle with Hillary Clinton for President of the United States, and the cultural discourse raged deeper.
According to reporting on the rise of Donald Trump from CNBC in late 2018, Trump became appealing to so many white, working-class voters due to their own “economic anxiety” and his head-on coupling of that anxiety with that of a fear of immigrants and immigration. At this moment in American history, Donald Trump rose to power on a working-class fear of “cultural displacement.” This fear was well-known across the country, even making its way into the most recent popular entertainment. Adam McKay’s film The Big Short, released during the Christmas season on 2015 directly called this out, that, of course, none of the bankers would be punished and Americans would “blame immigrants and poor people,” and all would continue just the same. When we consider Marxist theory, particularly that of reflection theory, which aims to consider the connection of a society’s economic base to its superstructure, and when we consider the ways in which popular media, especially the movies, directly reflect the consciousness of society, we cannot help but pay attention to the collective emotional experience of being the powerless (Bressler 171). This connection has never been more uniquely made than in the 2016 modern-day Western film, Hell or High Water.
The film exists in a West Texas that hearkens back visually to the Wild West. In fact, in this day and age, as the rural lifestyle of a bygone era further dwindles, much of West Texas, specifically the small desert towns seems, at least in the movies, has reverted back to a series of Ghost Towns. That's certainly the perspective of director David Mackenzie's film, penned by actor and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. With this film, Sheridan was enjoying part two of a trilogy of produced screenplays of his (this one is situated between Sicario, his takedown of the American war on Mexican drug cartels, and Wind River, his look at violence towards women in forgotten Native American communities in the Rocky Mountains). Hell or High Water stands above the two in both popular and awards success. It is a story of the darkness that surrounds the working-class desire for the American dream, one of dying small towns and ways of life. This idea runs through the film in nearly every frame, every cutaway to an abandoned building or payday loan place or the barren West Texas landscape. West Texas itself becomes a melancholy sort of character.
It is the story of a family's poverty across generations and the perpetuation of that poverty by the greed of a changing landscape in a changing time, where big banks, even small banks, surpassed decency and became judge, jury, and executioner to the livelihoods of those on wrong end of the very real wealth gap America. It is riddled with sentiment for the dying small town American West. Within all that is a movie willing to take its time and reveal underlying truths we would never expect from this kind of entertainment. It is a rich character study powered by three heavyweight performances, the kind that move you with equal parts pathos and wit. In essence, it is a classically made crime drama, a modern-day Western, blended with a fairly non-traditional heist film. It rises above the usual entries in the heist genre due to Sheridan’s close attention to how that arena of American cinema, the classic story of outlaws with a cause, works right here and now. Here his screenplay is matched visually with the work of British director David Mackenzie, whose camera knows exactly what to show us and when. The performances from the film’s cast, including Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two bank robbing brothers and the Marshalls on their tail, played by an Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, are each charming and devastating, tired and worn-down, desperate for answers to the complications of a marginalized society, the rural poor.
The desolate Western landscapes and sunsets Mackenzie’s camera captures and the employment of rich string music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who made names for themselves in the film world as composers of rich mood music for a string of modern Western’s that includes 2005’s The Proposition and 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, plants this film firmly as the first post-financial crisis banking industry takedown that also functions as a successful genre exercise. It has the subtlety in tone of a great, moody post-classical western with the type of satisfying payoff that even Ocean’s Eleven wishes it could pull off but can’t. Hell or High Water is a different kind of heist fantasy, one that replaces Las Vegas precision with heavy doses of West Texas grit. It has a mind to expose injustices in the American capitalist experiment. This makes it wholly unique, a piece of modern cinema that serves to bridge divides even among the closest of working-class neighbors, criminals and cops, Western fans and cinephiles. It is a movie that makes the political unconscious of the working poor, a nearly forgotten people exploited and oppressed to the point of seeing little in the way of a future, completely conscious. It is a note on the state of a rural America divided in allegiance to political parties, which are themselves divided over the path of its economic base and the future of its intermediary with the superstructure, the film’s one and only villain--the banking industry. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, from its smallest moments of dialogue to its driving moral dilemma, finds a thread of hope that a divided working class in America may be united by a common mistrust in its country’s banking industry.
Hell or High Water is the story of Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers. Tanner, embodied by the reckless intensity of the actor Ben Foster, is the older, the black sheep of the family, a known criminal. Toby, portrayed by a somewhat against-type Chris Pine, is the younger, a father of two teenage boys in between jobs that wouldn’t pay enough to give him a place to put his boots and pay his child support anyway. They are both cowboys in a world that doesn’t need cowboys. Their mother recently passed away and left them a meager house on a meager plot of West Texas land. They call it “the ranch.” The property, we learn later, is tied up in a reverse mortgage owned by the Texas Midlands Bank. Toby and Tanner, it becomes clear, are poor and always have been. We see them in their mother’s home after the film’s opening two robberies, pulled off as clumsily as we sense they would be in real life, the presence of hospice still in the room. Tanner wonders about a will, knowing there isn’t much of one. We get a bit of backstory the next morning in a diner, as Toby alludes to his ex-wife and child support in a discussion with his brother about their stolen money. The waitress, played by Katy Mixon, is interested in Toby’s quiet cowboy look. They talk of the lack of good work and supporting their children. Toby hits right to the point of pain for the West Texas proletariat, telling her that his “last job was for a natural gas company. Nobody’s drilling for gas anymore.” The land, of course, has been stripped for decades of its valuable mineral deposits. We infer the usual story. The already rich got richer, and the ones that did the work got dumped.
This extends to a specific lack of opportunity in this time and place in the very next scene. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, and his partner, Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham, talk of Hamilton’s dread of retirement, which to him represents an impending loss of purpose. They come upon a ranch fire and see ranchers escorting their livestock across the highway to another field of dry, barren land. A rancher stops for a beat to answer the officer’s inquiry as they wait to pass. He is beaten: “Put me out of my misery...21st century, and I’m racing cattle to a river. It’s no wonder my kids won’t do this shit for a living.” When Alberto asks if they should help, Marcus sets down the pain of the station of this particular forgotten base. “No. These boys is on their own,” he says. This is one of several important small conversations in the film that deal with the plight of the working rural poor.
The same idea comes back once more in the film’s final conversation. Toby and Ranger Hamilton talk about what came before, the wake of violence left in the culmination of his and his brother’s crime spree. Hamilton asks him how he did it, then changes that to why? He knows that Tanner did it because it is in his nature to steal. But what was it for Toby? “This was you. This was smart,” Hamilton observes. To which Toby replies: “I’ve been poor all my life,” he tells him. “It’s like a disease that passes down from generation to generation. But not my boys. This is theirs now.” The robberies were indeed Toby’s master plan to keep his family’s land, land that, as it turns out, will now generate $50,000 a month forever from the oil that sits under their feet. He has used the bank’s money to buy back the land it took from his family, land both parties knew was now worth a fortune. It’s a satisfying pay off, a true crowd-pleaser, but Toby’s words ring out above the satisfaction of the ultimate heist. His words are a testament of truth about his place as part of the working poor proletariat, the weakened base and its collective wish to turn the table on the bankers at Texas Midlands, who planned to walk away with the Howard family’s lost oil-rich land at the cheapest rate possible.
That the Texas Ranger and the one he just couldn’t nail down end their story at such opposition from each other only serves to underscore how they are the same in a way of thinking about the American superstructure, especially in terms of the hegemony of the banking industry on defining the economic realities of its base, to which they both belong. A Texas Ranger, especially an over-the-hill one, knows the limitations of his own power in the grand scheme of things. That his retirement brings about the end of his chance to serve justice underscores their connection even more. They both end up outlaws or could. We see this in Hamilton during one of his stops at a recently robbed bank. He scours the room for the right man to question, and seeing a balding, middle-aged man in a suit, declares, “This looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” This direct way that Sheridan’s screenplay lines up cop and criminal and then blurs that very line is even extended in the very next scene, as Hamilton canvases the very diner the brothers just left. The “feisty” waitress has no interest in talking. She will keep Toby’s large cash tip to “keep a roof over her daughter’s head” and couldn’t care in the slightest from where the cash came. The old codgers that likely while away all their mornings in a booth by the window have little to say just the same. One old man speaks up only to say the robbers were thin and “looked like cowboys” and that he had been there that morning “long enough to see a bank get robbed been robbing me for thirty years.” Hamilton’s reaction is one of resigned, but good, humor. He is right there with these people.
The seeming divisions now closing among the different demographics in the film’s setting (male, female, pre-middle age and post, cop and criminal) extend to the Native American population. How do the brothers plan to clean this stolen money? They take it to a casino, turn the stolen cash into chips, sit awhile, then cash it out in the form of a check to Texas Midlands Bank. They are Robin Hood. They are Comanche. Tanner’s conversation at the blackjack table with a Native American man gets heated when he asks, “Are you Comanche? Lord of the plains!!?” To which the man replies: “Lords of nothing now.” The deeper hegemony of a white ruling class is evident in this one simple line. The Comanche as a Southwestern tribe of the plains fiercely fought the white settlers. They ended up with institutions that inherently breed a life of gambling and alcoholism, leaving no room for real mobility in society. It has been taken. Alberto, Hamilton’s part-Native American partner, echoes this sentiment a few scenes later. Hamilton knows the brothers will hit one of two small town bank branches next, so he forces Alberto to sit with him and “enjoy this little town.” Alberto can’t fathom the sadness of such small towns, calling attention to the “old hardware store twice the price of Home Depot, the one restaurant” and talks of Cowboys and Indians of old, pointing out the fact, as he physically points to the bank at the adjacent corner, that the “grandparents of these folks took this land, and now it is being taken from them. All because of that right there.” Together, two police officers see the greed of modern banking and the swindle that unsuspecting Americans of all cultural backgrounds have been forced into for over a century, completely unaware of the unregulated government-sanctioned gambling that takes place in the big city bank offices.
To be sure, this movie is not concerned with that larger picture of the banking industry. Its characters can’t possibly fathom such an entity. What this film does concern itself with is the false consciousness of the small, rural townsfolk and the small banks that use their practices to exploit them. These are people, like Toby and Tanner, who likely don’t have much more than a high school education. Their false consciousness comes alive through self-preservation and the desire to hold onto whatever thread of the old ways they can. That preservation is often achieved through crime and violence.
The film opens cold at a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank. Two masked men, the brothers Howard, are there as the first teller arrives just before opening time. They aren’t great at it. They banter with the teller, played by Dale Dickey, who tells them in so many words how stupid they are--the bank manager hasn’t yet arrived to open the vault. They make it out with minimal collateral damage, only one pistol whip to the bank manager’s head, a country song introduces us to the opening credits, and the outlaws head to their second bank of the morning through the flat, barren side streets of a small West Texas town. As the chase heats up with the Rangers always barely a step behind, the brothers stop in another Texas Midlands Bank branch. This time though, it is for advisement on spending their “winnings.” It’s a pivotal scene that marks the transition between entertaining bank robbery movie and statement on the hegemony of the banking industry. It clarifies the brothers’ uprising against the system they know is trying to leave them behind. They deliver a casino check to pay off the reverse mortgage with a banker who seems to have helped Toby concoct the plan. He praises the brothers as he downs his bosses at the bank: “They thought they could swipe that land for $25,000. To see you boys pay them back with their own money...nothing more Texan than that.” He advises them to take it further when they eventually make their second payment to Texas Midlands, the back taxes left on the lien, and get Texas Midlands Bank to manage the trust they’ll eventually have on the deed, a deed that will be left in the name of Toby’s sons, not his own. His plan has worked, and he indeed makes good on that advice. Toby becomes the proxy by which the filmmakers wish to expose the political unconscious of the working poor.
When the film makes it to its obvious violent conclusion, it does so in such a way as to continue to make us empathetic to its heroes on both sides of the law. A final showdown of gun violence between Hamilton and Tanner, who has sacrificed himself to see his brother’s plan through, ends in a moment of simultaneous relief and heartbreak. It is over for both men. The next sequence finds Ranger Hamilton retired with no way to serve justice within the confines of the law. He and Toby have lost their partners. Hamilton asks how and why, but he already knows the answer. When your family’s legacy and livelihood is at stake, when your American Dream has been made unattainable by a corrupt system, it seems, this film would argue, there is no line, not even a thin one, between the innocent and the guilty. (The idiom of the film’s title is evidence enough of that.) Even those charged with enforcing laws must question their notions of justice. Nobody is right or wrong in this film. Everybody is both. They are united in knowing that they both have nothing left to lose and can battle it out later as two forgotten men in a forgotten place.
In closing, it's worth mentioning the signs and symbols Hell or High Water illuminates through the astute visual sense of David Mackenzie’s direction. It is this element of the film that lends itself to a reflectionist reading beyond that of the human characters and the revenge fantasy of the proletariat that they fulfill. This film indeed directly reflects the relationship of a mostly white, working-class base to a larger superstructure (Bressler 171). In between robberies, the brothers ride in cars they’ve planted along the way, cars they bury after each heist. On the road, they see the signs. There are signs that announce closed or closing businesses. There are signs that advertise cash advance and payday loan operations, the banks of the truly impoverished.
Modern outlaw country songs play on the soundtrack as Mackenzie’s camera deftly slides these billboards into view, interrogating us drivers-by with “In debt?” and“Debt Relief.” Two brothers drive the roads calm and determined to preserve what life they can. We hear, at one point, a brooding country song by Gillian Welch called “I’m Not Afraid to Die” as the brothers hang around the ranch at dusk. They play around, chase each other, and we sense that their crimes are freeing them. Tanner is in this for love of his brother, nothing more. Toby is in it for his boys. It is not about them. It is about them breaking down a system that will pay out in the future for Toby’s boys. Like the Comanche that Tanner meets in that casino, they are “enemies forever...of everyone.”
But it is that mentality that worked to expose the injustice of an oppressive society that has left the poor, like them, to fend for themselves, that blames them for being poor. It also exposes the larger injustice of banks and banking practices that exploit the working rural poor automatically by controlling every aspect of both personal finance and the larger economy of America. Hell or High Water ends with a song by Chris Stapleton called “Outlaw State of Mind.” Chris Stapleton himself is the kind of musician that unites people. His album Traveller crossed over to fans of both classic and modern country music. This film, in many ways, did the same thing. It became one movie in 2016 that critics and audiences could agree on. The song rings out just before the closing credits as splashes of light from the plains cross Mackenzie’s camera lens. This land is desolate and isolated. The people in this film are as well. They rise and sleep as reflections of a working-class in a dominating society that has forgotten them.
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