Warning: there are potential spoilers in this review.
We’re living in a transitional time, as evident in the upheaval of Presidential Politics in 2016. To a great extent, Hell or High Water, directed by Scottish director David Mackensie, reflects current trends that can trace themselves back most recently to the financial crisis of 2008, but even further to the Iraq War and further still to the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 80’s.
That the American Dream is not working out for everyone has always been the case, particularly for minorities. It seems, however, that this reality has reached an amplified level of desperation for non-minorities as well – specifically the working white poor – and thus is finding its way more actively into our films and our politics. Hell or High Water, with its desperate White Male protagonist Toby
With this particular drama (and this film certainly rises to the level of drama), there is an attempt to explore not only conflict but also what the ancient Greeks would label stasis, or civil strife. This in turn evokes homeostasis – or the tendency to seek balance and stability. We find that balance here in the Texas Ranger Hamilton, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, as he attempts both to
We see in Ranger Hamilton an essentially fair-minded individual that gives us hope that stability and the rule of law will indeed prevail, even while the clever are allowed to profit. The clever being seen in both the Banking system and in Toby, who out-wits everyone, and in effect uses his own brother as fodder for the system, even as Toby sacrifices himself for his own (seemingly unappreciative) family.
His brother Tanner was the primordial warrior, needing essentially an enemy to fight in order to give him purpose. While unstated, his brother could have easily been a suicidal Iraq war veteran, although the writer (Black List winner Taylor Sheridan) sought not to expand his themes into that territory. One can only ponder the level of social commentary the film could have leveled on US society should Sheridan have taken that path.
Warriors often wreak damage on the innocent, and Tanner is no exception, made painfully evident to Ranger Hamilton when Tanner kills his partner, mixed Native American officer Ranger Alberto
That a Native American descendant would be Tanner’s central victim is no small matter, and also prescient, given the current situation with Native Americans and the Dakota Access pipeline. As Tanner exclaimed , he was a ‘The King of the Plains’ and felt he ‘was a Comanche’ (as told
It is no small coincidence for this film that among the primary ideas that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill) sought to defend were private property and the need for Central Banking. It is this property and land, says Ranger Alberto in the best speech in the film, that the White Man is inevitably bound to lose to the Bankers, just as did the Native Americans did to their conquerors. It was apt then, that Ranger Hamilton be the Banker’s defender in this film.
That civilization uses its warriors as sacrificial lambs in order to maintain social stability is a repeated theme in war films, or films of warriors fighting for some sort of local or community justice, and seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Interestingly, the The Magnificent Seven (based on the Seven Samurai) is also having a remake finding itself to the screen. These morally ambiguous stories, where the anti-heroes find themselves fighting
Another example of such a film (there are many) that comes to mind would be Michael Mann’s Thief, starring James Caan, where the thief desperately seeks normalcy, only to find that normalcy is an impossibility and a pipe dream. So it is for Toby’s brother Tanner who displays the same kind of self-destructive criminality as found in James Caan’s character in Thief.
As for Hell or High Water, this moral ambiguity is shown as the anti-hero brothers fight against a corrupt system because the brothers did in fact need the money, and the whole scheme was a way to turn the tables on the unfair (either corrupt or borderline corrupt) dealings of their local bank. Specifically, corruption in the guise of unfair reverse mortgage on their property, a property that Toby had been deeded to by his recently deceased mother and that Toby had found out was sitting on top of a lucrative oil patch.
Hell or High Water also echoes back to a film franchise set during prior transitional political times. During the 70’s, just before Reagan, we had another series of films that one might call reactionary and emblematic of the politics of the time: the Dirty Harry series. Here the steely eyed San Francisco Cop (played iconically by Clint Eastwood) was going to lay the law down on the various threats to the White Man’s dominance of the United States: people of color, immigrants, and other assorted misfits and low lifes.
We can watch closely for a Dirty Harry re-do, with perhaps Donald Trump being the producer. It may have a limited audience, as Clint Eastwood recently dubbed the millennial generation ‘the Pussy Generation’.
On television, the 70’s had All In The Family (starring Carroll O’Connor), which made fun of conservative politics, but in an oblique way that allowed conservatives themselves to join in on the fun. Hell or High Water, with its social justice meme combined with essentially conservative, libertarian sentiments, uses a similar methodology – allowing the left and right to come together under the same entertainment roof.
Reactionary sensibilities aside, some potentially worthwhile and quintessentially American values are on display in Hell or High Water: those of property ownership, essential fairness and decency, having our children do better than us, financial independence, and rugged individualism are all on display in Hell or High Water.
The film, while on one level a tale of a revolutionary sticking it to the Man, is on the other hand a revelation of human folly. For at the end of the day, the oil that is pumped out of the ground on Toby’s land (now deeded to his Children) may lead to the death of his children’s hope for a future. In clinging to the illusions of past fossil-fuel driven prosperity, Toby may not allow his children the freedom to explore alternatives. This is perhaps the real, off-screen tragedy of Hell or High Water. But then, according to some, we can continue to pump that oil forever, and with no consequence.
But back to Dirty Harry. My sense is that demographics and the preferences of young people have so shifted since the times of Dirty Harry that we will not find a shift in politics to a modern-era Reagan – or certainly not under Donald Trump, who at least for now is trailing at the polls. In today’s
As an interesting side note, Hillary Clinton is the first woman mentioned in this essay.
Don Thompson is an essayist, producer and playwright.