Essays · Movies

Hell or High Water’s Tribute to the Working Poor

A summer movie for the people.
Hell Or High Water Porch texas
By  · Published on August 26th, 2016

Hell or High Water is one of the few summertime success stories in a film season that’s been rather light in that department. It’s almost ironic that a film surrounding the poison of poverty is turning a buck, but that could be because it’s tapping into something so visceral that too few movies are interested in looking at. Hollywood’s chastised the banks, the housing industry, and corporate America, but what happens when there’s no big bad to point the finger at?

Hell or High Water elevates “the banks” to Snidely Whiplash levels, but it’s a eulogy to the death of the small town, and how, in spite of America’s corporate bail-outs, people are still struggling to live from day-to-day.

Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard’s (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) scheme of robbing banks to pay off their mother’s reverse mortgage has its roots in movies like Killing Them Softly and The Big Short, pointing a finger at the wealthy big-wigs who keep the little man down.

Films regarding poverty go even further back, though. Founded by a group of immigrants, it’s not surprising Hollywood has made its bank on stories of the downtrodden, like the 1940 John Ford adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, which director David Mackenzie emulates in the washed-out West Texas landscape.

While other writers take note of Hell or High Water’s tribute to the West, its sharpest critique is at the demise of the small town. Tanner and Toby rob various banks away from major cities; in the towns, they go to the bank itself is usually the most heavily traveled place. Following behind that is the casino, where people lose what little money they have as quickly as they earn it.

Stopping in at small local diners and hotels, many scenes illustrate how isolated everyone is. When Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) stake out the bank across from them, hardly anyone walks by. These characters literally inhabit ghost towns where, due to lack of economic vitality, civilization has up and left. This cycle of spending money to make money is succinctly summed up by Marcus himself, who complains that small-town stores jack up their prices in order to survive, yet no one is able to buy their wares, forcing them out of business. This explains why big box stores like Walmart make their bones off small town, putting out local businesses that can’t compete.

Though Mackenzie gives audiences’ a tangible villain to hate – The Bank, complete with capital “the” – the roots lie in poverty’s insidious nature. Everything Toby does at least is motivated as a means of breaking the cancerous chain of poverty that’s infected his family for generations. As he eloquently explains to Marcus, being poor is systemic, sickening family members and keeping each subsequent generation as poor as the one before, which, in turn, feeds the banks and corporations that ruin America.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s words are what resonate in Hell or High Water. Sheridan talks from a very real place, describing the working poor who live to work, never getting out of the hole but staying just above the surface. It’s a message that needs to be spoken, especially in light of our current political climate where anyone on welfare is perceived to be a moron and government assistance is labeled a “handout.”

Toby and Tanner’s descent into bank robbery is extreme, but who hasn’t dreamed of some massive influx of cash to solve their problems, legality be damned?

Hell or High Water, below the surface, is the story of my life. Being a member of the working poor is exhausting. You feel helpless, drained, questioning how a country that prides itself on providing opportunities leaves so many struggling. I know these feelings because I feel them constantly. As the child of a single mother who worked two jobs to raise three children, it’s impossible to disagree with the assessment that being poor is a generational parasite. You watch people you love struggle just to maintain a small toe-hold in paying utilities or credit cards; working 40–50 hours a week to pay rent and having little for food at the end of the week. Hell, every writer has to feel this way, working, in many instances, for free while working a day job.

As summer winds down and kids go back to school, it’s ironic that Hell or High Water is probably one of the summer’s better movies, eschewing bombast for cold, hard reality.

Related Topics:

Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.