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The Perfect Bad Guy
Refining evil in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water
Dusty, broken America: Hell or High Water.
Narrative used to provide us with certainties through which we could interpret the world around us. These guys are good; we want them to win. Those guys are bad; we want them to lose. It comforts us to think that the world can so easily be divided into factions with such clear boundaries.
But things have begun to change in what we expect of narrative morality. So many stories over the last few years have tried to give depth to the bad guy. We have religious zealots who do what they do not out of cruelty, but piety; we have comic super villains who only do what they do because they are hurting or because they have a dream of building a better world; we have cartoon crime lords who are only out to look after their little adopted families of cute kiddies. In short, the bad guy has started to look like just another guy.
Hell or High Water could have so easily have driven down the same route. A bad boy team of brothers, only stealing what they need to get back at the very organisation who drove their family into the ground. We find ourselves cheering them, hoping that if they can only just get through the next stage of their project, they will be home and dry and their family safe and financially secure once again. It could have so easily been a story about the misunderstood bad guy.
But the brother’s are not the bad guys.
Neither are the cops, before you start that one. And neither are the townsfolk who decide to defend their small town from the bank robber nor even those persons working at the bank. No sir, not at all. For all these folks are victims of the most diabolical bad guy any of us could hope to meet: Debt.
Time and again, billboards soar past the brothers on their journey across state advertising credit loans and debt relief. The beast against which they fight is neither greed nor consumerism, but the threat of having their ranch — their very heritage, as fragile as it is — taken away from them by powers beyond their control.
It is a burden both brought on by nothing more than their own victimhood. They are poor, so they are easy prey to the spectre of debt. It absorbs every dot of income and profit from their meague property, an awful spirit desperate for their farm to fail so that it may consume the bones of what is left behind. In an era where we have humanised evil into something understandable and even benign, debt itself has become the unseen threat, abstracted and impalpable — the perfect bad guy. It will not rest; it will not relent; it cannot be killed; it infests every transaction we have with one another; it is written into the core of our very society; we both fear it and rely on it. The writers of Hell and High Water have provided us with a bad guy whom we can never humanise.
In short, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within narrative.