Hell or High Water (2016); And Our America in a Nutshell
There’s an uncomfortable unveiling of America that Hell or High Water undergoes during its hour and 42-minute runtime. Director David MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan slices off a piece of American culture and thrusts it under a microscope to reveal the nuances of how the “American Dream” affects our society and how our obsession with cultural ideology has us on the verge of hurling up what we’ve been spoon fed for generations. Every aspect of this neo-Western crime infused thriller’s production lends itself to unraveling these aspects through the microcosm of rural America, an often forgotten and ignored chunk of the United States that only came to the forefront of our thoughts with the disappointment of Trump’s electoral win.
In peeling back the garish layer of an American sector that we progressives dangerously consider “backwards,” MacKenzie’s vision and Sheridan’s script highlights how geographical isolation and a stagnant economy has resulted in our current status. But this very thought process—the over-analyzation of the those in the outskirts— has resulted in the furious push back and battles between opposing views that we relentlessly see today. This gets fleshed out in Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a geriatric sheriff coming up on retirement who still think it’s funny to make racial jokes aimed at his half Native American/Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus doesn’t seem to understand why Alberto can’t just take the joke, the way many on the right feel it’s acceptable to spew whatever degradation they deem acceptable without considering someone else’s history and cultural background. Similarly, Tanner (Ben Foster) can’t take a bank clerk that he robs calling his robbery “stupid.” He becomes furious at feeling emasculated and threatens her instead of considering the position he and his brother Toby (Chris Pine) have put her in by holding a loaded gun to her head.
Here, these men are all byproducts of their environments; for this reason, the Howard brothers push back against their environment to save the family ranch that is in danger of being taken by the banks after their mother passes. Poor, uneducated and with seemingly no other options, these jaded men—one recently divorced, the other fresh out of prison—pounce on small banks throughout Texas to earn the money they need to pay off the debt they find themselves in. Naturally, their plan spirals down a distorted vortex of bleakness, but along the way viewers are shown a true reflection of America, and not an idealized version or an altered fun-house reflection, but a sharp, clear look at what this country has become and what it’s always been.
This violence and inhumanity in Hell or High Water manifests itself in Tanner’s ferocious climax in which he seeks thrill and glory at the expense of innocent lives. In our everyday reality, this manifests itself in current synagogue bomb threats, shootings of unarmed people, Sandy Hook, the death of Trayvon Martin, the housing bubble of 2008, the deplorable American Health Care Act, Neil Gorscouch’s past rulings putting corporations over people and the continuing denial of rights to those with very little power, financially and socially. This desperate swan song is eclipsed in Foster’s performance but illuminated by the screenplay’s focus on how American policies and compliance has allowed this. Our boisterous arrogance and nostalgia is at fault for where we find ourselves in today.
Hell or High Water gorgeously plays out like an ode to Westerns of generations past thanks to the lush, wide landscape shots and passing establishing shots through car windows. It encapsulates the rugged, rough and tumble gun-toting imagery of the old cowboys, and its grants audience’s insight into this past while embracing the excitement of the era and reminding us that although the times may have changed, the enemies have stayed the same. In the time of the Newton gang, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, corruption of big banks has always been the enemy. And yet we keep forgetting this time and time again.
Set in Texas, Hell or High Water possesses the free range to expose America for what it is now: A post 9/11 future where we uphold the 2nd amendment over the 13th and where lobbyists and corporations have dictated our values to us. The inevitable heist gone wrong element of the film (foreshadowed earlier on) happens not because of serendipitous moments but because our ideological obsession with needing guns. The theft of money in a bank robbery is now a certainty for bloodshed, just as walking down the block at night heightens the chance of death for people of color be they Black, Indian or middle Eastern.
Similarly, lives are lost because of the callousness of banks and loan sharks under the guise of business. Hell or High Water is a great story that paints important strokes on the larger canvas of our country and the ideals we decide to hold true. It does so much while doing so little. It shows us reality through fiction, one that reflects a dying empire trying to hold on to its glory in a world of quickly changing beliefs and perceptions. The brothers’ last bank robbery in a bigger city is thwarted by technology and a readiness that these small-town men weren’t aren’t prepared for.
America is attempting to regress and go into its happy place while the Earth continues to heat, evolve and change with indifference to our existence. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to stick it to those in the system whom do us wrong or beat them in more productive, lasting ways to ensure justice and pursuit of happiness for all and our planet. As Hell or High Water shows, short-term fulfillment made by regressive patterns may win the fight, but it doesn’t win the battle. Only progressive movement forward can do that.