Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hell or High Water: The Power of Myth

Every nation has had its share of greedy, arrogant leaders. Some of them have given birth to folk heroes like Robin Hood. Whether in the guise of a mischievous Disney fox in forest-green clothes or rendered by Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, Robin Hood has the face of a friend and a spine of steel.

Chris Pine’s contemporary portrait of a Robin Hood figure is no different except, perhaps, in something behind the eyes. In other films, they are open and as blue as the heavens. In Hell or High Water, those eyes are sometimes slits, often averted, and always flinty. He is a Robin Hood called Toby Howard, born in lowly circumstances, a child of poverty, his family’s legacy, passed down generation after generation “like a disease,” he says.

Hell or High Water’s Robin Hood, like the folk hero, is smart, daring, and quick. He steals only from those who stole from him, a Texas bank that loaned his cancer-stricken mother just enough money on a reverse mortgage to die and leave debt to her son, Toby.

Out of work and divorced, Toby cannot make the payments or pay the taxes. The bank will foreclose and lay claim to land once used for farming and ranching until drought laid prior claim to those human activities. The bank will also acquire a house in need of repair and a good purging.


Pettis County Barn by Al Griffin

Both land and home are priceless to Toby. They are his inheritance. They are his sons’ future, especially after an oil company finds wealth below the dry, dusty surface. That oil could vaccinate Toby’s sons against the disease of poverty. Toby will, by any means possible, buy the vaccine.

Toby asks his brother, Tanner, to help him. Tanner is a felon, convicted of killing the brothers’ father, despised by the brothers’ mother, and paroled with little hope or desire for a job. He agrees to help Toby because Toby asked.

Together, the Howard brothers rob banks, careful to conceal their faces and reveal themselves to no one until Tanner’s rash decision to rob one while his brother finishes lunch in a café across the street from the bank. The locals connect the dots and realize they can identify the thieves, but they don’t; they won’t because Toby is a man broken by the banks. He’s down on his luck in unlucky times. He’s a man out of time to work his way out of debt, and he’s generous to a fault. He leaves a $200 tip for the café waitress because she’s kind. She sees his sorrow, and she wouldn’t add to it--as a bank did.

That waitress not only refuses to identify Toby when later shown his photo, she also refuses to surrender the $200 until forced to do so by a Texas Marshall. Another diner also refuses to identify Toby’s photo as the robber who broke bread in town. He offers that the true criminals are bankers with Texas Midlands.

In scenes when the brothers drive highways and dusty backroads, they pass signs announcing homes for sale, businesses closed, foreclosures. Times are bad. Jobs are scarce. The 99% is afflicted with empathy for each other and antipathy against the 1%.

Even a professional who helps Toby pay off the bank debt with the banks’ own money refuses to turn in the Howards. He knows how little the bank offered to a desperate woman with malice aforethought so he helps Toby claim his true inheritance, his boys, and the oil.

Hell or High Water packs a terrific political commentary on economic hard times. The movie is also a good heist story with plenty of action. Audiences root for the Howard brothers, even glossing Tanner’s brutal acts: dragging a bank teller by her long hair and shoving her down, striking an ugly blow across the nose of a bank manager, and killing bystanders in one bank. (Spoiler Alert!) Tanner pays for his brutality with his life.

Toby’s hands set it all in motion, and they are bloody as a consequence. The crusty old Texas Marshall who knows Toby is the puppetmaster, but can’t prove it, says Toby will be haunted all his days because of what he’s done.

Toby is just fine with being haunted. His cause was righteous. He set out to cure the disease of poverty for his boys. He fought the evil in his land--not the Sheriff of Nottingham as Robin Hood did--but the Texas Midlands Bank.

Reading Challenge:

Read Hell or High Water. Apply the five conflicts, but especially man against society as your read.

Writing Challenge:


Re-tell the Robin Hood tale using modern locations and circumstances.