Around the midway point of the film Hell or High Water, brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Forster) meet with an attorney. The men have been robbing a series of Texas Midland Bank branches so that they can pay off their dead mother’s debts to that bank. The attorney is fully of aware of the bank robberies and, more than just turning a blind eye, is happy to help with the scam. One of the bank robbers asks why.
‘The banks loaned the least they could so they could swipe your mama’s land,’ he says. ‘They took everything from your family; this is your chance to take it back. Paying them back with their own money? If that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.’
And here we have a kind of raison d’etre for Hell or High Water: an anti-capitalist reimagining of that most American of genres, the western.
Hell or High Water opened in the US back August 2016, after Bernie Sanders whipped up a frenzy of socialist sentiment; but before Donald Trump rode a wave of populist rhetoric and fake compassion for the working class right into the Oval Office. It came out in the tail end of an election campaign that brought the white working class to the centre of American political discourse, and like a good piece of pop culture, it reflects the society it was produced in. Hell or High Water takes us on a tour around areas of West Texas that globalisation forgot. Toby and Tanner are cowboy Robin Hoods, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Well, to themselves.
And this is where Hell or High Water and a range of other recent movies miss their mark.
Bankers are the New Terrorists
The kind of Robin Hood narrative that Hell or High Water trades in is nothing new and doesn’t need to be viewed in inherently political terms. But when the only non-white character in the film, a half-Native American half-Mexican Texas Ranger called Alberto, points at a bank and says, ‘[white colonists] took my land, and now it’s being taken from them, except it ain’t no army doing it, it’s those bastards right there,’ you have no choice but to view the movie as a political work; it’s begging you to do so.
There’s been a proliferation of mainstream films and TV shows that villainise bankers and stockbrokers, in the way that Russians were once villainised—as shadowy and unknowable, part of a vast institutional machine that destroys the individual. Now, we see so-called Big Money being portrayed the same way.
Take Jodie Foster’s film Money Monster, released earlier this year. In that film Lee Gates, a television finance guru played by George Clooney, finds himself held hostage by Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a guy that lost his life savings after following a tip from Gates. Over the course of the film, we’re treated to corporate espionage of the highest order, with a villainous CEO in an expensive suit actively manipulating free markets with no regard for how his twisted machinations effect regular, salt-of-the-earth investors just trying to get ahead.
You could even stretch this to apply to The Hunger Games series. While those films operate in the realm of sci-fi, President Snow has more in common with the CEO in Money Monster or the spectre of the banks in Hell or High Water than he does with, say, Darth Vader. In all cases, the bad guys wield their power through wealth, not force—for the most part at least. Unlike the boogeymen of Hollywood past, they’re almost post-racial, their social class is their most important characteristic. In Hell or High Water, an old white cowboy quips that he sat and watched the Howard brothers rob a bank that had been robbing him for thirty years; this is a class war.
But the heroes only have pyrrhic victories
Almost all of these films neuter any chance at meaningful political discourse because they don’t stick the landing. Hell or High Water ends with Toby opening a trust with the same bank that tried to exploit his mother’s lack of knowledge of the banking system and repossess her land. The rationale behind this is sound—who would expect someone that just robbed a bank to open a trust with that same bank? And it works. Toby’s off scot-free.
Similarly, in Money Monster, it is revealed that the catastrophic financial repercussions of a dip in the stock market weren’t caused by a market that even financial advisors are unable to control or truly understand, but rather by the scheming machinations of a corrupt CEO.
The effect here is that the blame falls on an individual; the system is left unchallenged. Money Monster ceases to be a critique on free-market capitalism and the ways in which people, through no fault of their own, are rendered powerless by that system. It’s simply about a corrupt businessman subverting those markets. Hell or High Water is unable to follow up on its critique of an unregulated and predatory banking system, and that system just becomes another way for the plot to move forward.
The Move Past Capitalism
Mark Fisher claimed that in the 21st century we are unable to envisage a future past capitalism, we cannot think of any viable alternatives. These films suffer from the same affliction.
The endings of Hell or High Water and Money Monster critique the late capitalist world they exist in, but they are unable to conceive of how things could be different. Rather than criticising a system, they criticise the individuals within that system, rendering their attacks toothless. Things are bad, these movies say, but only because people are bad. This is not a particularly interesting ideological or philosophical argument, and it means that these films don’t need to explore the way in which neoliberal social and political structures limit and constrain autonomy and subjectivity.
It’s not particularly useful to ask any film, let alone a Hollywood movie, to present an ideologically sound alternative to late capitalism. It is a good jumping off point, though. If we do want to see practical social, economic and political change, we need to see when the critiques being presented to us are falling short. We need to come up with something better. We should never stop criticising people that knowingly exploit others, but we also need to understand that the systems that encourage that behaviour—we need to turn our eye to those systems.
If that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.