The movie Hell or High Water with its four academy award nominations, presently playing in the theaters, turns out to be far more than just another quirky, brilliantly scripted, postmodernized version of the venerable Western within a twenty-first century genre.
Even if not intended as such, Hell or High Water can also be taken as a somewhat clever and ironic, though highly nuanced, parable on the inauguration of the Trump era and the confounding politico-theological messages that are beginning to be broadcast at a global level.
Set in the desolate, quasi-moonscape, which defines the southern sector of the Texas Panhandle and with its multitude of far-flung, decrepit, and skeletally populated county seats strewn from horizon to horizon has functioned as an enduring metonym over the last half century for the slow death of the white American working class ever since Peter Bogdanovich’s film noir entitled The Last Picture Show in 1971, Hell or High Water does not automatically register, however, as a political statement.
The class warcraft and anti-heroism of the bank robber brothers Toby and Tanner Howard are indisputably front-and-center (much in the same vein as Bonnie and Clyde have been portrayed by Hollywood on a variety of occasions). However, it is the unsentimental and haunting humanness of all the key characters in this celluloid masterpiece from the half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who has to endure stoically his cohort’s incessant and subtle racist harassment, to the sassy, overweight, small-town waitress who refuses help the cops identify the bank robbers because they want to confiscate as “evidence” the purloined $200 the latter handed her as tip money.
This is one flick in which, even though end up killing four people who do not deserve it, you can’t help feeling that the “bad guys” are unquestionably the good guys. Their rather amateurish enterprise of robbing banks is motivated by neither greed, glory, nor thrill-seeking. They merely want to prevent the bank’s foreclosure on the family ranch in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis resulting from their mother’s recent death and the family’s inability to pay off a reverse mortgage.
Neither of the brothers actually are seeking to take possession of the ranch. While Tanner, an ex-con, drives off in their bullet-ridden getaway car to draw the pursuing posse off his brother’s trail and ultimately dies in a violent standoff, Toby quietly takes the purloined loot across the Oklahoma border to launder it at an Indian casino, then with pure chutzpah takes it back to the very bank they robbed to buy back the deed, thus preventing foreclosure.
He even sets up a comfortable trust for his ex-wife and kids with the same money without keeping a dime for himself. Is there some kind of finespun message here? Possibly.
The movie climaxes with a rhetorical standoff between Toby and Ranger Hamilton, who is now retired, but thinks he can goad the former into admitting he was complicit in the bank robberies. Toby is cool and unflappable, refusing to snag the bait. When Hamilton observes that his family now has money they didn’t have before, Toby notes with a kind of wry resolve, “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But, not my boys. Not anymore”.
The screenplay, which won awards long before it found its way to theaters, resists the kind of simple and strident moralizing that dominates so much political conversation today. The ambiguity and complexity of the lives of the “invisible” working class, which includes not only white people but Native Americans and Hispanics who together share a strange, albeit highly tensive, bond of solidarity, is one clear motif that can be extracted from the surprising jerks and turns of the film’s general plot.
It is further reflected in the fact that all the characters on both ends of the “cops and robbers” divide share a certain gritty respect for each other. That is one of the enduring traits of the much maligned politics of “populism”, which runs all the way back to the Robin Hood tales of the Middle Ages. The real blackguards are the remote and smarmy representatives of the financial new world order (such as the almost colorless bank managers), who intrude into the story line from time to time and become mere foils for the entirety of the larger drama.
But even Hamilton, whom one might expect to be a genuine salt of the earth, has certain pretensions. Before he turns in his badge, he wants to go down as a latter day, high plains Columbo, even though in reality he winds up a real-life Inspector Clouseau without any kind of comic leaven. And even though he gets his man (or at least one of them) in the end, it is at the cost of the very life of his “half-breed” sidekick, who clearly is jaded by Hamilton’s genteel racism as well as his compulsive drive to wield the power of the state to bring about “justice.”
With a quite understated, yet sublime finesse Hell or High Water turns out to be a savage mockery of the politics of neoliberalism and its “cosmopolitan” hauteur toward the rustic, hardscrabble and forgotten “other half”. The film itself has an attitude, as disclosed in what is one of the most amusing lines where the rangers ask a certain “nasty woman” waitress at a failed-state kind of hashhouse with absolutely no customers in the middle of nowhere what she might recommend on the menu. Her reply:
I’ve been working here for 44 years. Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-Bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout, back in 1987. We ain’t got no goddamned trout.
There is even a suggestion that the much vaunted racial prejudices and “fascist” tendencies of these people are but a projection of the ruling classes’ own fragile superegos and fear of losing control. Rather than serving as the shock troops of some sort of “white supremacist” insurgency, there is an undercurrent of camaraderie between the lowly and the lowlier, even if the latter is a person of color.
In one sardonic scene the congenital loser Tanner wins at poker from a rough-looking pureblood Comanche chief, who then faces him down. Tanner gives him a look, and the Indian sneers: “I am a Comanche. Do you know what it means? It means ‘enemy to everyone’.” To which Tanner mans up and replies with a wrinkle in his nose and a twinkle in his eye: “Do you know what that makes me? A Comanche.”
The original title for the movie was supposed to be Comancheria, suggesting perhaps that the grim struggle against its grim geographic backdrop for the sake of a rough, rude, and paradoxical triumph of right over might is not so much racial as economic (i.e., those who have little to nothing versus “everyone else”). In other words, the struggle is class struggle, stupid.
Je suis Comanche perhaps.
As historian Nancy Isenberg in her best-selling book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America points out, the putdown of such people as “refuse”
…is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people— both in their visibility and invisibility— is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice.
Although the book went into production before the last election cycle, Isenberg curiously cites Donald Trump’s reality television show The Apprentice as politically proleptic in a very foundational sense. Anticipating the ubiquitous core messages of the current anti-Trump protests, Isenberg stresses that we seem dead set on dismissing these “neighbors we wish not to notice” as “not who we are.”
Then she concludes her massive tome with the following arch sentence, reminiscent perhaps of something Toby might have muttered to Ranger Hamilton:
“But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not”.
We progressive and broad-minded “new urbanists” might chew on that thought as we digest our trout.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.