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How about cinema in the age of Trump? We do have some movies that try to explain what it means to men to lose their sense of dignity and what fierce pride this brings out of them. This manly attempt to reclaim a sense of dignity is important in politics as much as in society. After all, the recent gains of the GOP in every office in the land and Mr. Trump’s own victory have a lot to do with the desperate hope that there’s some future ahead for people who have been suffering in an economy that’s been bad for almost two decades. 2016 was not a year of American confidence or contentment—instead, a sense of betrayal that implies a sense of dignity led people to do something they had never done before. The party system, much shaken, now gives the look of restoration, but American society is not done shaking things up.
There’s more awareness of this in the press than in the movies. In 2016, the American press did start to pay attention to many neglected stories. It started covering the horrible suffering of the white working—or formerly working—class. The opioid and heroin crises got more coverage than previously. The shocking fact that white men in lower social classes are dying younger than they used to do, which is unknown to America, also became a part of public discussion. The terrible rate of suicides for men is still neglected, but that, too, might become part of public discussion.
So maybe it’s time to pay attention to the few stories that take seriously the crisis of manliness. Unknown to the blockbuster-loving public, America has produced movies about anguished manliness faced with dying communities, a lack of opportunity for self-betterment, and no way to get a sense of personal dignity. The best director for such stories is a young man from Arkansas, Mr. Jeff Nichols. I’ll talk about him in an upcoming essay in my ‘Oscar movies you should watch’ series, because his new movie, Loving, is also nominated. Right now, I’ll talk about 2016’s anguished manliness movie, Hell or high water.
One problem for this kind of cinema is apathy. Hell or high water made $27 million in the US on a $12 million budget. It opened small and gradually worked its way to a short-lived total of 1,500 theaters showing it across the fruited plains. It’s marginally profitable, but these numbers are a mere nothing in the age of blockbusters. They might as well not exist! America’s good luck in such cases is, strangely enough, the festival circuit: Hell or high water opened in the most prestigious film festival in the world, Cannes, along with other all-American stories that do not get much play in America. It then tried to get a second life out of prestige during award season, including four important Oscar nominations: Best picture, a supporting actor nomination for Jeff Bridges, a writing nomination for Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay, who also wowed with the script for Sicario, and one for the editor, Jake Roberts, who also edited the last-year’s loveliest Oscar-nominated movie, Brooklyn. It won nothing.
So you can look at popularity or you can look at prestige, but I’m here to tell you the markets are wrong and the critics are right. It’s not often that conservative America owes a debt of gratitude to French movie festivals and out-of-touch movie critics, but 2016 was full of that. Follow my series of essays on movies and you will see that America really does have on offer very good movies about Americans—it’s just that the way the distribution system works in Hollywood, most people never learn about these movies. At the same time, the conservative press makes almost no effort to spread the news and to convince Americans to support those artists who try hard to bring American stories to local multiplex.
Now, let me try to convince you that this is worth watching. I don’t think the following will spoil the surprises of the movie, but you’ll learn a bit more than you would glean from the trailer. Hell or high water is the story of two brothers, Toby and Tanner, who grew up on a small ranch in West Texas, in poverty. They hatch up a bank-robbing plan when the bank wants to foreclose on their small property. Things do not get better from there. You see what the prospect of losing their dignity does to men and how men take out their suffering on the world around them. You see how little faith people who have long suffered without relief have in the system. Their American pride is to a large extent a wound, not a source of strength. They cannot abandon it, because they’re Americans, but it threatens to turn the men mad and the women bitter.
They show two sides of American manliness and its failure. Toby is divorced from his wife and is not too close with his son, either. He took care of his dying mother, which in a certain sense is easier: whenever he sees his wife, they have fights. Family, whether looking backward to the dead or forward to the young, means failure to him. He’s trying hard to avoid going down that despairing path. Because he is handsome and soulful, women take to him. This brings up another problem: his sense of pride will not allow him to take just any job offered him, but it is also what does not allow him to take advantage of women, even women who want to be taken advantage of, so to speak. One good thing about manliness is a sense of restraint. Self-restraint might seem useless or harmful while times are good, but what else is to prepare people for dealing with bad times?
Tanner is savage. Never had a wife nor kid, because he comes from a family where he learned that the weak suffer instead of being protected. He acts as though the laws have no claim on him, because they were never there to protect him. His, not Toby’s, is the position that corresponds better to American youth. America to him is a humiliation—there’s wealth and morality out there, always denied him. He knows, like his brother knows, that he made wrong choices. He doesn’t feel he can change. Nobody ever made it worth his while and it’s probably too late. That mindset is not rare anymore. In fact, both brothers are worth thinking about as carefully and respectfully as possible, because they show sides of America unduly and irresponsibly neglected.
There is no happiness on display here. All the ugliness in the movie shows how hard it is to rehabilitate what I call the redneck virtues that are split, within the movies, in-between the two brothers: Defiance and self-reliance. One seems undemocratic, the other uncivilized. They are nowadays called backward, they really are unfair to women, and they are also too confrontational for any large society. What’s the point of being so angry or defensive? Don’t we live in a win-win world?
That’s all to one side, but notice too what’s on the other side. The only people who can still be publicly humiliated in America are rednecks. The argument against them seems to come down to progress: the future, which is bound up with intelligence-based productivity, has already left them behind. To some extent, this is an economic truth–but it is of course a cruel thing to say. Why should people who are part of the future be cruel to those left behind, with whom they have no association anyway? Most people who mock rednecks do not know rednecks. It is not some experience of redneck America that moves them to mockery. It’s as though sharing the name American with people of whom they disapprove is offensive to them. But if you think that some experience nevertheless has to be found which accounts for the habits and opinions of people, I believe it is tied up with manliness. Rednecks are far manlier than people who work for facebook. They live with less fear and have some way of providing for themselves. They are not at the mercy of invisible decisions that do not take into account their humanity.
‘Hell or high water’ is a good title for this reason, that it states the redneck virtues admirably: standing one’s ground, refusing to be moved by events or opinions. That is the most obvious part of manliness and it recalls the anger and defensiveness obvious in so much of country music and Southern music. The title is meant to suggest that the criminal activities of the brothers are all tied up with self-defense. That’s true, by the way, even if they break the law…
Is there any place left in America for manliness in pursuit of excellence? A way for men to achieve some kind of freedom? The story suggests, sports, specifically football, America’s newer, more savage pastime. Tanner is savage enough to have moved into loneliness as a way of life, but Toby has a son in whose future he is interested, and he plays football: that’s his chance to make something of himself without being a danger to anyone. Manly protection means providing, as Americans say. But it also means protecting the world from the boy who might resemble the men of his family too much. (Notice that the military is not an option in this story.)
Another exemplar of manliness and how politically incorrect it is in latter-day America is the retiring Ranger played by Jeff Bridges, who is tasked with catching the bank-robbers. He is full of jokes that today would be called racist. He likes to dare people to think of him as racist. He likes to teach them that there is a great difference between the abstract outrage-at-words typical of America and the experience that grounds respect for people who actually serve the community. The hardship of life in America is something altogether harder than a nasty joke. He does not give up his mission to do justice in the bank robbery case after he retires. Partly, he has nothing else to do with his life. But partly this proves that his dedication to justice was part of his manliness, not something you can put in a man by giving him a job and take out of him by taking away his job. This goes together with another fact about law: it can punish, but not reward. He is one of two men shown willing to give up their place to women, because he believes manliness has not much future in America.Published in