When first writing about Hell or High Water, I skirted talking politics except for an oblique reference to Trump’s supporters, but the movie wears politics like a badge. Billboards and graffiti announce the horrors of debt like a drumbeat through the first hour of the film. Characters ruminate over the situation in conversation. The point is clear. Jobs are gone in small-town America. The financial crisis has pushed families to the brink of poverty and is tearing them apart in the process. Smelling blood, the banks, mad with greed and shameless despite having caused the financial meltdown, have rushed in to snatch people’s homes and land. Losing these, the families lose the last of their hope.
The film’s solution to the characters’ economic problems is simple: if people could only get out from under the thumb of the banks, if the debt that is crushing them were wiped away, they could fend for themselves. This libertarian world view is perfectly suited to the western as a genre, and the film plays out its story in these terms. The brothers—talented, industrious, and clever enough to accomplish wonders if given a chance—rob the bank swindling their family out of their ranch and pay off their debt to that bank with the money they steal. Their debt paid, they live off the fat of their land. (Well, it’s oil, “Texas T”, not fat, but same difference.)
Unsurprisingly, the film insists upon the morality of the brother’s actions. They may be violent, but that violence counts for little: one brother is a bit crazy and has been ruined by childhood abuse and prison; the other doesn’t want the violence even if he points a gun around. Likewise, their string of robberies is defined as somehow not quite theft: they steal only what they need to be free from the bank’s clutches. At one point, they share a bit of it with a single mom struggling to pay rent, but they don’t waste it on prostitutes, and they aren’t looking to accumulate personal wealth. In other words, they are not really thieves. They are doing what they have to do to save their family and to give their kids a chance at the American Dream.
The western is a genre perfectly suited for this clannish, libertarian view of the world, and this film is as pure a western as I’ve seen in a long time. The sheriff even rustles up a posse at the end. And so, despite all the talk in interviews and reviews about the interesting moral ambiguity of the film, I don’t buy it. The moral stakes of this film are generic and clear: eastern interests and their local agents are ruining families and the law can’t solve the problem. So a virtuous gunslinger has to step in and do what he can, and the local law-man understands, whatever his office compels him to say or do. This is Pale Rider/Liberty Valance 101.
The problem with all of this is that however satisfying the idea of the solitary man taking matters into his own hands and doing what needs to be done is (and it’s very satisfying, especially when filmed as well as it is here), the problems these characters face are bigger than a bank loan, and their solution is more complex than paying it back.
Part of the film’s achievement is that it seems to know this on some level. The oil found lying under the family ranch waiting like a miracle to make the protagonist’s sons wealthy and secure is a lucky break. The fact that it is luck highlights the fact that the ranch itself is just fields of grass too dry to raise cattle. The protagonists aren’t robbing banks to save a family farm. They’re robbing them to hold onto a winning lottery ticket.
The early presentation of the mother’s deathbed likewise undercuts the political fantasy. Her colon cancer gave the the bank an opening to swoop in and gives emotional grounding to the sons’ efforts to save her land. But it’s fair to ask if paying off a reverse mortgage offers a reasonable solution to the problem of falling sick? Obviously it does not.
The film flatters viewers by suggesting they’d be fine if left alone, but in reality cowboy libertarianism encourages them to ignore (and perpetuate) their misery by escaping to a world in which real solutions—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, human-scale agricultural practices—don’t exit and would appear horrific if they did.
Generic Hollywood fictions are entertainments. They have few political obligations and when they address the political, their “politics” will often be risible. By motivating character with economic frustrations and reaching aesthetically toward “seriousness,” Hell or High Water invites consideration of the political underpinnings of the western. These generic politics are a dream and are beautiful, but if you look carefully through the cracks in this film, you can also see they are exactly the opposite of a way forward.