Hell Or High Water: A Parable And A Problem

The theatrical film, Hell or High Water, by design or coincidence, offers a useful vehicle for an important national concern.
09/02/2016 09:57 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2017

The theatrical film, Hell or High Water, by design or coincidence, offers a useful vehicle for an important national concern. At the core of its story is the decision by Toby Howard (played by Chris Pine) to enlist his brother's help in robbing banks. Their goal is to get money to pay off the bank threatening to take their dead mother's farm. Toby has discovered oil on the land and wants to give it in trust to his two children, who are living with his divorced wife. His brother, Tanner, just out of prison, cooperates gladly in the effort, which results in the shooting deaths of several people.

The Howard brothers are clearly breaking the law. There is no question that the bank's planned confiscation of the farm if the outstanding loan and back taxes are not paid, though ethically bothersome, is lawful. Nor is there any doubt that Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is lawfully and honorably bound to pursue the criminals.

What is thought-provoking, however, is that the film's core question is not about what is legal but what is just. Set in the hardscrabble life of West Texas, in which Toby notes that poverty is passed down from generation to generation, the only prosperous people are bankers. Aided by the law, which they no doubt have helped create, they have political and economic control.

Yet the film moves us emotionally toward the conclusion that sometimes justice requires flouting the law. Even townspeople who could identify Toby withhold cooperation with law enforcement - not because they admire the brothers but because they hate the bankers more.

James Madison, in defending the work of the Federal (Constitutional) Convention, said that "Justice is the end [purpose] of government. It is the end of civil society." But what happens - and what do we do - when the law thwarts justice?

This question is at the heart of much anger in America today. Directed at Wall Street, big business, government, and financial institutions, among others, the fury comes when Americans feel the "system," managed by people and forces outside their control, has constructed laws that deprive them of well-paid jobs, life savings, prospects for the future, and much of their freedom. The law is seen as advancing the wealthy and the well-connected at the expense of the majority. Justice, the end of civil society and the sense of elemental fairness, is the slave to the law as its master.

It is this populist rage that fueled the Sanders campaign, that is part of the Trump appeal, and that has turned off so many to the far more experienced but also far more connected Hillary Clinton, herself a lawyer and politician.

How do we ensure the law promotes justice? And if, as in Hell or High Water, the system is unjust, is disregard of the law an acceptable alternative? Are the film's Robin Hoods heroes, even though innocent people died?

The film never answers these questions. It does not have to; but we do. Until we can find a way to ensure a better correlation between law and justice than many Americans now feel, we invite the sacrifice of the former to the pursuit of the latter. The danger of this disconnect is that we may get neither justice nor the rule of law. As Madison also noted, justice "will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." We will seek that justice, "come hell or high water," and that could be the problem.