The "Hell Or High Water" Narrative @gainst the (Oscar) Establishment

Sunrise from a Getaway Car , 2005

Sunrise from a Getaway Car, 2005

During the entire experience of watching Hell or High Water I couldn’t help but suspect that this is probably how Trump supporters view the world. To a liberal New Yorker, it’s almost a horror story, or the footnote explanation for the current political climate...renegade outlaws, Robin Hood tale in which the big bad banks finally bow down to the people they serve. Well, sort of. 

The writer of Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan, has made a career out of cop shows and movies, which, in the context of this story--which is empathetic to the criminal as much as law enforcement--makes me realize how the genre of cop shows is parasitically dependent not on good guys and bad guys, but on gun rights. This film suggests that justice can be attained through armed robbery but also that order can be maintained by citizen police.  In a parallel reality in which Clinton would have won and Trump lost, this film would be read as a question of gun rights and bank wrongs, not about a power structure that overlooked the potential of the poetic justice found in the robbers' scheme. Sheridan, an actor turned screenwriter, started out on such sets as Walk, Texas Ranger and Sons of Anarchy.  A born and raised Texan, his films tout the rugged individual and duality of good and evil. Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and the forthcoming Wind River (2017) all center on law enforcement stories that glorify the pursuit of justice. Although the films are regionally specific, their characters and world views are ubiquitous to the rural experience. In Hell or High Water that world view is necessarily short sighted--focusing on a single bank as an ersatz surrogate of financialization of the housing market.  

Unintended Scorched Earth Policy,  2007

Unintended Scorched Earth Policy, 2007

Although having been nominated for four Academy Awards–Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Screenplay and Best Achievement in Film Editing–it won none of them. The productions that dominated the awards this year were La La Land and Moonlight.  It's 2016 and not only is the culture industry politically activated, but there's a President in the White House who's adamant about returning fire.  At the awards ceremony, as well as the theater, the specter of the Trump Presidency shades the interpretation of films we watch and the speeches we hear at the winners podium. Thus, I couldn’t help accusing the bandit Howard brothers of Hell or High Water as Turmp voters. This is who they are, what they look like, the values they have–not simply to break the law, but a sense of justice that is resolutely immediate, applicable on the individual scale and in a landscape that is essentially empty. Rural America. In this light, the film’s potential as a lasting historical document is more compelling as a dying view of the world partially explicated by the story it puts forward, than its status as a well made film or well written script. The way of life is dying because the manner of living in isolation is losing against an increasingly urban lifestyle that is growing not only in population, but also leveraging the rural lives through the very debt against which the brother bandits fight. To put it bluntly, the fiction put forward is that the rugged individual can solve macro economic problems by singularly addressing the problem with direct, (maybe illegal maybe gun maybe violent) action. This is Rambo but on Wallstreet.

The roles of pro- and antagonist are blurred by the two pairs of hetero-white dudes who understand ethical behavior through tribal dynamics: the obligation to moral imperatives where natural laws must be exercised over legislated conditions. This both begins the film and ends the film: the first robbery is framed over the deathbed of the brother’s mother for whom they seek to right wrong; the final farewell is bookended with each survivor of the competing duos agreeing to duel to the death. What better way to characterize the individual than to kill his partner and debase his existence down to his singular obligation of vengeance? I just hope there's no sequel. 

The heroism of the film, if there is any, is located in the inception of the ingenuity of the Robin Hood scheme, rather than a critique of the housing subprime loan crisis borne of (neo)liberal capitalism, which is better addressed in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Rob who’s robbing you, pay them back and make them your servant. That's essentially the plan. Get your family out of generational poverty, even if it kills you. Okay, that's fatherly. Hell or High Water follows two rebel brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard, who’ve targeted a local banking institution to methodologically rob. But they don’t just want the money, they seek justice. The brothers’ intend to steal the enough money from the bank to pay off their deceased mother’s property, which is in foreclosure from the same bank. The scheme really seems like a story told in the 1990s about gangs, when America was struggling to be both more politically correct and tougher on crime, but this story is with Texan ne'er-do-wells. One brother's an ex-con, the other a failed father. But Hell or High Water tries to be recall bandit classics like Bonnie and ClydeNatural Born Killers and Badlands, and it's with these comparisons that are more fruitful. All three comparative films were innovative for American filmmaking. Bonnie and Clyde promised the American equivalent of the French New Wave style of Goddard and Truffaut. French New Wave was stylistically aberrant because of the sociopolitical slant of the producers; anti-Hollywood, anti-big production, Truffaut and Goddard deeply influenced Bonnie and Clyde. American cinema was stagnant, in crisis, formulaic and more interested in filling theater seats than expanding the medium. Released in 1967, the influence of admixture of youth culture and French cinema proved successful for writers David Newman and Robert Benton.(1) Comparing just the demographics that were attracted to Bonnie and Clyde and those represented in the Trump contingent via Hell or High Water, we see basically the opposite part of the American populace. Americans 25 and under overwhelming supported Sanders and later Clinton. 55% of young voters preferred Clinton; 37% preferred Trump. (2) Natural Born Killers (1994), the murder satire aptly critiques the media's irresponsible action, aggrandizement and perpetuation of violence. Itself a prodigy of Bonnie and Clyde and cinema violence, Stone was forced to address the real world scenarios of his film when copycat killers took off across the country. In defense of the film, Stone stated his purpose was critique of media, not suggesting of a solution. (3) (Ironically, the news coverage of the copycat killings paralleled the exact role Stone claimed the media played.) The message of Natural Born Killers is categorically opposite to that of Hell or High Water. One critiques the frenzy of violence on the screen while the other promises violence to be saving grace. 

Contrasting Terrence Malik’s picturesque landscapes in Badlands–which was woven together from three directors of photography: Brian Proby, Tak Fujimoto and Steven Larner–that seems to stretch almost as wide as 70mmfootage, Giles Nuttgen, Hell or High Water’s director of photography continually degrades the rural Texas landscape with decrepit fences, broken down homes and rusting industrial equipment. Although the aspect ratio of Badlands is less rectangular than Hell or High Water,1.85:1 and 2.20:1 respectively, the latter feels crowded and claustrophobic in the landscape frames. While in Badlands, the landscape appears as an idea stretching to the hard line horizon, Nuttgen’s images are all too present, upfront, in the foreground, a place that is hopelessly inhabited and stretching outward. In keeping with the repetition of billboards targeted at the indebted society, the images we see depict the slow implosion of the pioneer lifestyle–that final fart of westward expansion, the actual footprints of settlers in the legislated colonization of North American West.

Tolerated racism pervades the film through Marcus Hamilton, the cop on the verge of retirement, played by Jeff Bridges, who constantly reminds his partner of his ethnicity. The all too familiar rapport found in small towns, one in which the personal proximity of someone you know fairly well confronts your maintained ideological stereotype, forcing you to both express the stereotype and excuse the recipient as the exception to the alleged rule, Hamilton’s racism toward his partner, Alberto Parker, is complicated by his “natural” duty to avenge the latter’s murder. Hamilton’s obligation can be juxtaposed with Tanner’s insulting of the Native American in the first casino scene, in which the brother blankly concludes that the Native American is his eternal enemy. Two forms of natural law: one that binds, and one that makes boundaries.

Intentionally stoking the racial tension of the Big Star State, the sociopolitical transformation can be summarized in abridged history uttered by the sheriff’s deputy, who’s of Native American and Latino descent: “150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you can see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Til the grandparents of these folks took it. And now it’s been taken from them. ‘Cept it ain’t no army doin’ it. It’s those sonsuvabitches right there [pointing to the bank].” In this sociological model, the conquest of peoples first with guns over those without, then the domination of those with guns by those with contracts is subverted by the well-intending rebel with a gun. Should this story have taken place 160 years ago, the only required change to the script would be the mode of transportation for the getaway.

Perhaps the biggest fantasy of Hell or High Water is the alleged victimization of the rural poor white man in the 2010 American housing crisis. The reality is that urban blacks, not rural whites, were disproportionately affected by predatory subprime lending practices. Blacks were three times more likely to be given a predatory loan as a reasonable loan; Hispanics twice as likely; whites had about a 50/50 chance to get either a good or bad loan.(4) With this in mind, the scheme to rob Texas Midland bank to save mom's house and get the kids new shoes and a college degree makes Hell or High Water less a Robin Hood film and more just a robbery film that hopes to stroke our conditioned distaste for the banking industry.

Sunset on Rural America , 2005

Sunset on Rural America, 2005


  1.  "Riding the New Wave," Elaine Lennon, Senses of Cinema, February 2006 k
  2. "Behind Trump's Victory: Divisions of race, gender, education," Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam, 
     Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016
  3. "The business of murder," Tim Lawrence, The Independent, October 1994
  4. "Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis," Jacob Rugh and Douglass Massey, American Sociological Review,  October, 2010