“Hey, buddy. We’re exactly the same. What’s happening to these people happened to my ancestors, and it happened to your ancestors.” – Alberto to Marcus in Hell or High Water, 2016
“3 tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us.”
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In Hell or High Water the banks must be paid, and those banks are what Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) plan to rob, Toby doing the planning and Tanner going gleefully along for the ride.
Toby calculates that if he can ensure the deed to the family home, he can benefit from a lease to an oil company because there is indeed oil on the property. Whether banks are predatory villains because they entangle dying mothers in reverse mortgages or whether they are villains because banks remain the unindicted villains of post-Great Recession 2008 America amounts to the same thing – banks are the villains here. “Banks been robbing me for thirty years,” one café local tells us, taking the grudge against banks back to Reagan days.
Toby’s decision to rob banks to pay off a mortgage has both a sly revenge irony to it as well as expressing a cynicism toward banks that after the 2008 Great Recession materialized once again in American society. But that cynicism regarding any boundaries to making money, any means necessary in the name of profit, was already a part of an American way of doing business, as Oliver Stone’s 1985 film Wall Street testifies. There’s an irreverence exuded by the Howard brothers in their spree that is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s line in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971): “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” This view of “a society where everybody’s guilty” resonates in this film and takes us beyond a Bernie Sanders-like leftist critique. How can you make any moral judgment as to who are the bad guys and who are the good guys when everybody’s guilty?
Moral judgment vacates the present scene in the collapsed, sun-baked small towns of West Texas, displaced by the awareness that dark predatory forces nullify the rightness or wrongness of all personal actions. This ressentiment also resonates beyond the landscape of the film, so that we are led to not question the ethics of reverse mortgages or of these bank-robbing brothers. In its place is an unnerving view of an outlaw reaction to the decline of certain American communities. Unnerving because it is both outlaw and very welcome. As the wealth gap in the U.S. expands to Texas-size proportions, we in the audience are ready to witness the banks who have robbed us getting robbed.
This is magnetic along the same lines in the U.S. where Donald Trump’s attack on mainstream media, the Federal government, and political parties – including his own – is both unsettling and attracting. Mavericks that turn against a resident establishment, who are outlaws to all convention, suit the present American palate. Trump is seen as an antagonist and nemesis of banks, one who has gotten the best of them. He is at odds with lenders, with a banking establishment that refuses to lend to him. The Howard brothers’ plan to rob banks rides the same outsider wave of challenge.
Alongside this rebel spirit is a wounding absence that fills the lives of those on and off the screen, the absence of a kind of justice that the legal system, from the presidency and the Congress on down, has not been able to give Americans, at least the Americans who fail to profit on the arcane mysteries of the financial sector. We experience absence in this film as a slow, dusty slog of loss riddled with nostalgia for what had been, in terms of both real economic sufficiency and mythic repute. We are not immersed in a kinetic pace of a film attempting to disentangle what financial cleverness has made of those less clever, but rather what we have is a very low key disclosure, a laconic, American West-style revelation of an expression that remains durable, the human condition.
Questions regarding nothing less than the human condition haunt this movie. We are enwrapped within what lies outside ourselves and are somehow emptied in the process. Whether the better angels of our nature are caught on the plains of a civil war or whether that civil war is already within us is a pondering that goes beyond the practices of predatory banks. We ponder what capacity we have as humans to do good and justified things without doing unjustified harm to others.
We are a long way from a fast-paced unraveling of what Jeff Bridges’s Dude in The Big Lebowski would call “A very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s” of investigation. Here, in this film, we have to study what heat, dust, and the many ghosts of this locale reveal of how we humans are bound and how we are not, when we are guilty and when we are not, whether we are all guilty or whether the guilty can be brought forward, perhaps as a crippling economic system, hopefully not as us.
The American West, despite its fall from fashion in popular culture, remains the home to which the American imaginary returns to regain its spirit of defiance. After 9/11, George W. Bush returned to that frontier spirit of bringing the malfeasants to justice, come hell or high water. In times of trouble, the deep, ontological kind that depresses the American cultural imaginary, Americans return to the idea of the rugged individual who breaks through the oppressing order of conformity. The actions of any individual can be set against any oppressing force and regain what was lost, what was stolen. That the individual can triumph against all odds is hard-wired into the American cultural imaginary.
The U.S. remains in a 9/11 moment, a hell or high water moment, that is redirecting itself from foreign terrorists to the destructive effects of its own divide between rich and impoverished, between the robbed and the robbers. Working-class and middle-class segments of the American population are sinking into a collapse, heading for an extinction axiomatically created by a drive for profits that has less and less need for Americans as workers, as consumers or as friends and neighbors. Judging by the towns Toby and Tanner Howard drive through, rob, dine, and shop, it seems like all these places have lost their frontier spirit, are adrift in a world the banks “back East” have made. “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us” reads a bitter scrawl on the side of a building.
All this triggers the frontier defiance of the cultural imaginary. To be caught between hell and high water is no more than the occasion to shoot your way out. What we discover is that the clear moral division of the Wild West frontier spirit cannot achieve the certain closure of this mythical shoot-out.
Hell is what a plutarchic order is making of a society that was the most socio-economically mobile society in history. We could say that fact is contained in the mise-en-scène of the entire film. But hell or high water is also what we make for ourselves, by choice or as the bent of the crooked timber of our humanity. When we turn from the panoramic view of hard times and a plan of restitution, from the macro to the micro, we focus on people, on the Howard brothers and the two Texas Rangers as well as the people in the banks, in the cafés, on the streets. Although the Texas Midland Bank is like a Mephistopheles wanting you to pay up on a bad bargain, it does not put the sociopathic sense of fun and mayhem into Tanner, nor are it and capitalism itself fully responsible for the fading of a white culture’s hegemony nor the extinction of an indigenous population.
Absent forces that totally wipe out our determinations in our own life as well as what instinctually determines us, we remain subject to our own choices. We are also subjected to the play of chance and the inexplicable and irrational inclinations of our own human nature. Thus, Toby Howard can choose to create a plan to counter the weight of the bank, and Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) can deduce what the next bank to be robbed will be. However, Texas Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Burmingham) has no choice in not being killed by Tanner Howard’s bullet, nor does Toby Tanner plan for innocent people to die.
Less grandiosely, the Rangers have no menu choice at the T-Bone Diner, or only a choice limited to what they do not want. It may very well be that choices are caught between hell and high water, constrained as they are by what chance offers, what surrounding conditions determine. Such conditions range from what an elderly waitress, worn out by the repetitive slog of her job, permits to what the limitations and obsessions of our own nature allow. Another waitress who is tipped $200 by Toby vehemently refuses to hand over that tip to the Rangers because she needs it to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. That necessity narrows her choices considerably. She holds Marcus off the way a mother would hold off a threat to her children, thus displaying the demands on her as a mother as well as the constraints being hard up financially place on her.
We cannot fail to observe that these two women in a movie without prominent women characters live lives of oppressing constraint, not choice, their choices seemingly limited to survival. While any sort of frontier justice and peaceful closure eludes male duos of lawmen and bank robbers, the sustaining mythos of frontier justice continues to elide the role of women within that imaginary.
There is a very thin line that separates anyone from what we can call “out on the street poverty” and “just getting by,” between $50,000 a month oil money and forfeiture. Tied to this is a sense of confinement, a confinement that choices cannot put aside. The cowboy who herds his cattle across the highway as a brushfire rages behind him tells Marcus that cowboying like this is a dead end that his son refuses to inherit. There is a specially dark resonance here when we envision a mythical glory of the cowboy life devolved into a resigned despair that extends into the future.
The scene is a kind of dowsing of the mythic fires of the indomitable Western frontier spirit. But Toby’s robbery plans are yet kindled in those fires. He does not acquiesce to the banks’ confinement of him and his brother to their family’s legacy of poverty. But the kind of liberation he achieves, the winning back of the land and the oil, does not free him from the price that has been paid. Like Marcus, Toby remains confined within a scenario of conscience that gives him no peace.
Both Toby and Marcus are themselves haunted by their own actions, by their own words, by the failure of both. I say haunted because neither would feel the need to seek peace if their consciences were not so burdened. Four people have been killed in the bank robberies Toby has planned, their deaths not planned but real nonetheless. Marcus is haunted by his failure to get beyond the playful mocking of his Indian/Mexican partner, Alberto, and be real companions in the saddle. The Western mythos is filled with such faithful partnerships, from Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook to the Lone Ranger and Tonto. That bond of the Western plainsman has devolved to chiding and hurt. Whatever the present aspirations toward a multiracial and diverse society might be, what we see as part of the fading of the American Dream in this film is distressing, what we could call “a failure to communicate,” to quote Strother Martin’s Captain in Cool Hand Luke.
If we mine more deeply, we face the possibility that good or bad are late implants in our nature and that therefore a mindless, amoral atavism is just below the surface, breaking out beyond the boundaries of our rational choices. Tanner shows us this happening, but Toby is not immune. He savagely beats a punk at a gas station taunting his brother. What motivated the IED in the punk’s head? He didn’t like the look Tanner was giving him. That was it. One brother designs a rescue plan and the other is bent by nature, the boy who shot his Daddy, who has spent ten years in jail, who is triggered to explode violently and triggered to love his brother, equally.
At a casino, Tanner maniacally faces off with a Comanche who Tanner has mocked as Lord of the Plains, to which the Comanche replies “Lord of Nothing.” The forces of extinction that have driven this Lord of the Plains into a casino where he spends his time playing poker are now ironically at work on both of them. Ironic because both are victims of a manifest destiny, one that played out long ago in westward expansion and one playing out now as the banks hover vulture-like over the arid but oil-soaked lands of the American West. But there is something inside Tanner more operative than the outside forces that have led Native Americans to a death-in-life existence. That something electrifies the scene. This Comanche, who looks plenty tough and is antagonized by this particular white man, is facing a sociopath who does not compute personal danger. It’s not the fall of former greatness that Tanner learns here but rather that he too is a Comanche, a Lord of the Plains. He neither recognizes the bitterness and despair in the Comanche’s self-identification nor the fact that he too is a Lord of Nothing. His own pathologic nature is lord here.
There is nothing to be learned in Tanner’s world; it is all already fixed, in a bent way. That obdurateness, that imperviousness to change, is what fuels our fear of others, of those we cannot send to prison with any certain hope that they will change, that they can be rehabilitated. But the nothingness cuts deeper in this film. It is not a condition or a fate restricted to a nature that cannot choose to be other. It extends to every character in the film, all, in various ways, unable to command a chosen end, a certainty that attends their words and actions. No one seems able to secure a closure of peace, peace here meaning a pact with the world agreeable to both parties, human and world. The only peace is a standoff in which peace at best is deferred. When all are guilty and any discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad, cannot be made, judgment cannot be made nor peace found.
Although no character in this film can rule the world in even the slightest degree, that failure does not bring Marcus, Tanner, or Toby to a resigned sense of defeat. Even the Comanche in the casino burns with a rancor and resentment, what Camus saw as a revolt and defiance in the face of realizing that no matter what one does, one cannot know the world in any way compatible with one’s desire to command it. Laughter was Camus’s response to the absurdity of this condition, similar to the reactions of Tanner, who seems to find a joy in the madcap plan to rob banks but also seems to know from the start that it will all end badly for him. There is a scene where Tanner pushes at a solemn Toby, playfully inviting him to join in with some good fun, a brotherly wrestle, and Toby finally obliges. Theirs is a kinship that announces a ludic sovereignty over the challenging dispositions of both the world around them and their own human nature.
Toby is burdened by bad past choices involving his marriage and his son but is determined to recoup his losses. The cycle of poverty is the villain, one he intends to liberate his ex-wife and son from, come hell or high water. But four innocent people have died because of his actions as well as his own brother. Marcus tells Toby that he knows he is the smart brother, a smartness that did not desert him when he brought his brother into his bank-robbing scheme. Toby knew then that if you fed Tanner violence, for however noble the cause, he would stuff himself to death on it. What peace can Toby find, knowing this?
How do you bring peace to yourself when you yourself are both the defendant and the prosecutor? Toby can plead it was the bank’s fault or the rapacious capitalism that places profit above people. However, it is not a cycle of poverty that made his brother what he was or made him exploit his brother’s sociopathy in order to break that cycle of poverty. He is not estranged from wife and son because of banks or poverty. What is absent is what would allow Toby to bring his entire bank-robbing project to closure. He cannot know in any commanding way, in any way that absolves guilt and brings peace.
Likewise, Marcus seeks a peace he goes out to find at Toby’s ranch in the last scene. He wants Toby to know that he knows he was the other bank robber and that whatever he thought he was doing, he wound up killing people. One of the people killed is Marcus’s partner, a partnership that, like a lifelong marriage in which neither can express their feelings, is now beyond reconciliation. Perhaps, Toby tells him he can visit him and bring him some peace, the kind of peace Marcus was just about to offer him. Toby’s ex-wife and son interrupt this strange shoot-out that never takes place. It is high noon on a dusty street with two armed men facing each other.
This is a Western in which a final scene shoot-out cannot settle the good guys/bad guys deal, cannot leave everyone in the audience with a sense of justice fulfilled, of the right thing having been done. The look in Marcus’s eyes clearly shows that he will pull his gun, that killing Toby is a way of saying he was sorry to his partner. And Toby is ready for that final shoot-out, not because Marcus’s death brings him peace, but because his own living and dying remain equally justified. He cannot give himself to a feeling of success or to a feeling of failure, to innocence or guilt. He seems resigned to the lack of moral clarity in his actions but unapologetic, ready to resist Marcus’s tribunal judgment. I see this as an existential defiance, a challenging of an ontological dilemma of human existence itself.
The film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, has referred to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as a film that moved the Western into this undecidability, this refusal to see good and bad actions, heroes and villains, as a clear divide. When you are Lord of Nothing, you cannot find the ground to stand and judge. But you can act, nonetheless, with a plan to right wrongs, as Toby does, knowing that the rightness may be diluted by a wrongness. Toby is prepared to accept this.
Marcus is older, at the point of retirement, but he has not been brought to an awareness that Toby possesses until Alberto is killed. Marcus rightly calculated where the next bank robbery would be. He is self-congratulating about having brought the whole pursuit to an end to which he reasoned his way. He is, in short, in command of the situation. But then, suddenly as a bullet from Tanner’s rifle kills Alberto on the spot, Marcus is in command of nothing. He was in command of the words in which he baited and teased Alberto but not now able to delete those words and speak other words, words closer to the truth of his feelings for Alberto.
Marcus, too, then winds up as a Lord of Nothing, perhaps more certain in the last scene with Toby that he can regain command by killing Toby and so find peace. Perhaps not. Such doubt lingers in this last scene as to whether both are complicit in an understanding that neither can give peace to the other, that such peace is a horse that has already left the barn.
The high water is a flooding caused by the banks, which are in the army of a capitalism that is drowning the Many and creating islands of sovereignty for the Few. And the hell is what we see in the Texas towns we drive through, riddled with collapse, with loss of what once was, though oil rigs chug along promising $50,000 a month. We rediscover no renewed greatness and nothing more than a deferred peace in Hell or High Water. The frontier we visit no longer revives a spirit of rugged, unconquerable individualism but leaves us irresolute, far from being the Lords of anything, world or self, though at least half the U.S. is now filled with such illusions of a dominion regained.
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Note: Images are screenshots from the DVD or Blu-ray, released today, November 22, 2016.