Will Trump's White House Give an Unexpected Boost to This Oscar Contender?
Seventy-five seconds into Hell or High Water, as the camera tracks through a dusty parking lot and across the side of a Texas bank, sharp viewers will notice a piece of graffiti on the bank wall. “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US,” it reads.
It’s a subtle message, a barely noticeable piece of graffiti in the opening moments of a neo-Western shoot-’em-up.
The message becomes less subtle over the course of the film: No one in power gives a shit about the so-called little people—those who served and are now struggling, who don’t have a college degree and live paycheck to paycheck, who become ill and can’t pay their predatory mortgages.
That message, that no one cares (and that some may, in fact, be knowingly taking advantage of you), has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer by the movie’s end. But that’s fine. Someone needed to make an entertaining fantasy about people who have been screwed by the system getting their revenge in a way that doesn’t end with Donald Trump being president.
The story of brothers Toby and Tanner robbing different branches of the bank that holds the note on their dead mother’s reverse mortgage (a scam if there ever was one), Hell or High Water is smart, funny, full of action, and entertaining as hell. It also has Jeff Bridges as a slow-moving, slow-drawling Texas Ranger in pursuit of the robbers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster.
The picture has proved popular with audiences, critics, and the types of people who give out awards. It’s been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Bridges), Best Original Screenplay (for Taylor Sheridan), and Best Film Editing. (Director David Mackenzie and composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis were shut out. Such is life.)
What Hell or High Water also has going for it is its relevance: People are still worried about their jobs and their mortgages. And with the White House looking to take a flamethrower to just about every financial regulation put in place since the gilded age of robber barons, Hell or High Water’s pro-blue collar angle may find some love at the Academy.
In the film, decent-guy Toby’s bank-robbing goal gradually becomes clear. His mother fell fatally ill and was in danger of losing the family farm. After her death, he has a week or so until the bank forecloses on the property he hopes to pass down to his sons. But Toby has no financial recourse to take care of the reverse mortgage payments and back taxes. So he recruits his degenerate brother to rob the very bank that holds the mortgage.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (better known as Dodd-Frank) was enacted in 2010 to protect consumers and the economy against the kind of financial jackassery that nearly brought the country down in 2008. One of its provisions created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which, among other things, is supposed to protect consumers from signing up for mortgage loans they can’t actually afford.
Had the law been enacted before Toby’s mother took out her loan, perhaps she could have avoided such risk. In a reverse mortgage, a qualified homeowner takes money from the lender and doesn’t make mortgage payments, meaning the balance of the loan increases while the amount of equity in the home decreases. As Hell or High Water paints it, Toby’s mother had no business taking out such a loan.
Last week, President Trump signed legislation that guts a Dodd-Frank anti-corruption measure forcing mining and oil companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. And his administration hasn’t been shy about touting other coming efforts that would make good on campaign promises to “dismantle” the act—including halting a rule that would force retirement advisers to work in their clients’ best interests. Moviegoers (and everyone else in the country) may be wondering how long until Trump signs legislation ending everything that made Dodd-Frank mildly assuring in the first place, including its provisions on predatory lending?
Let’s not lose sight of the overall, though, which is that Hell or High Water is, first and foremost, a piece of movie magic. And as it’s timely and exciting, it may have a shot at Best Picture.
But Hell or High Water is a genre picture, and genre pictures rarely take top honors at the Academy Awards. Before the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (worthy) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (unworthy) won back-to-back Besties in the late aughts, the last genre movie to come out on top was Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. Before then it was The French Connection in 1972. Typically, the Academy prefers its Best Picture winners big (Titanic), or better yet, big and dumb (Braveheart).
And if there’s one thing Academy voters love more than telecasting how much they care about the plight of those less fortunate, it’s movies that show just how hard it is to be in Hollywood in the first place. How else can you explain previous wins by crummy Birdman (down on his luck actor attempts to make good!), marginal-at-best Argo (down-on-their-luck producers do nice thing for America!), and just-plain-dumb The Artist (yay, actor dogs!)? Or La La Land’s 14 nominations this year? It’s a good movie, but Jesus Christ, in 2017, a musical about two white kids trying to break into the most exclusive strata of the coastal elite is more important than an entire generation of people in flyover country who lost their homes?
Why, yes. Haven’t you been paying attention?