What ‘Hell or High Water’ Tells Us About Power, Economics, and Life

In David Mckenzie’s Hell or High Water, we are introduced to brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively). They have been poor their whole lives and are at risk of losing a piece of property to the bank which is later revealed to have a fair amount of oil on it. To pay of their debts (thereby stopping the bank from taking the property), and to stop the vicious cycle of poverty in their family, the dynamic duo have started to rob Texas Midlands Bank branches – the same bank that preyed on both their financial and moral vulnerability. To pay off what the film portrays as a predatory bank loan, the boys need to raise approximately $40,000. To make a long story short, after a lengthy series of trial and tribulations, the boys succeed in raising the money and securing the financial future of their family. Along the way, though, we watch a number of encounters that help to illuminate two of the films many themes: how technology has changed the way people make a living and the terrible effect poverty and a lack of opportunity has a people.

There is scene in Hell or High Water that has stuck with me since I first saw it in 2016. It’s a scene in the middle of the film which shows Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges, who garnered a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at that year’s Academy Awards) and his partner Alberto (played by Gil Birmingham) driving down a highway, trying to get to the scene of one in a string of bank robberies they are investigating. Like they do for much of the film, the two are bickering and trading insults with each other… Until they spot a fire and a cowboy moving his cattle out of its path. They stop and ask the cowboy – incidentally played by the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan – if he needs any help. He politely declines and tells the Rangers he should just give up and let the fire “turn [him] to ashes to put [him] out of [his] misery” and that “It’s the 21st century and I’m racing a fire to the river with a herd of cattle. No wonder why my kids won’t do this [expletive] for a living.” Alberto asks if they should call the fire in; Marcus says that they shouldn’t as it would just burn out anyway.

Nevertheless, Marcus remarks that “there’s no one to call out here anyway.” Not only is this scene an ode to a dying way of life, it helps to illuminate how technology has changed the way people make a living. For the better part of four or five centuries, many people made a living herding cattle in the manner shown in the film. No longer. It is dying it because it no longer has the same appeal in the modern world. Quite simply, it doesn’t provide the same stability it did in the past when it was the most productive way to use the land and earn a respectable livelihood. Modern technology has made it much easier to throw a bunch of cattle in a cage and pump them up with antibiotics and feed them with unhealthy grains than to raise them in nature, keeping a close eye on them at all times. In truth, raising cattle’s in the way pictured in the film is inefficient but it also gave so many people jobs (and made better cattle too); raising them the way modern farms is certainly more efficient, but it creates inferior cattle and employs so few people.

Predatory banks and a lack of well-paying jobs has also led to a terrible, vicious, and never-ending cycle of poverty. Early on in the film, it’s clear that Tanner, Toby, and their family have been affected deeply by predatory bank loans. After all, they owe approximately $40,000 and have very little money to their name. But it’s also the people around them that have been deeply affected by predatory banks and a lack of well-paying jobs. This is clear when the Rangers come to question some townsfolk about the robberies that had taken place and they all refuse to give up Toby and Tanner – even though they clearly saw them. They realize how hurtful the banks have been to so many and are okay with seeing them lose a bit money – money that, in the end, will be inconsequential to the banks. In that same scene, when the boys are eating at a diner, we are introduced to a waitress who can’t afford to pay her mortgage because she doesn’t make enough at her serving job – one of the only jobs around, she says. The $200 tip that Toby give her will ensure she and her child have a roof under their heads. Otherwise, they may go homeless because there aren’t enough jobs for her to work. This also probably means that she has had to take out loans to survive; loans taken from the banks in a time of need and ultimately, desperation, condemning her, and ultimately her child, to a life of poverty.

Although Tanner and Toby have taken things into their owns hands to end this cycle of poverty for them and their children, many around them will not and will be stuck poor for most – if not all – of their lives. Not only does Hell or High Water illuminate how technology has changed the way people make their livelihood and how banks prey on those seeking more opportunity to get and stay out of poverty, it’s call to action is much more powerful: if you want to change your circumstances, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it yourself – don’t rely on anyone else to do it for you.