American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.

Class consciousnes and its oft-contingent condemnation of wealth was a theme at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival that one would be hard-pressed to overlook. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that Ken Loach’s poignant portrait of one man’s struggle to navigate Britain’s welfare system, I, Daniel Blake, took home the Palme d’Or.

But this topic was also prominent in part because films about wealth, or lack thereof, pervaded the entire festival, spanning its various sections. From Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, a skewering of the role of cable TV in maintaining economic inequality in the U.S., screened out of competition, to David MacKenzie’s big bank busting western Hell or High Water.

Critic Tim Robey rightfully Andrea Arnold, Cannes 2016 shone a spotlight on poverty in the U.S. in particular.

Observations of post-recession America

Two of these films also had another commonality: like I, Daniel Blake, both Hell or High Water and American Honey were helmed by directors hailing from the UK, rendering them, at least in this technical sense, outsider observations of post-recession America.

The similarities don’t end there, however. Both American Honey and Hell or High Water portray modern rural America through a post-recession era lens of poverty imagery that belies the bankruptcy of the American dream.

Upon its premiere at Cannes 2016, critics very clearly saw, and highlighted, Hell or High Water’s fiscal message. They were in accord as to its importance. “The film’s implication,” according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “is that in the new, corporate-driven, triumph-of-finance-culture America, the bank just wants to gobble up property. It’s not there to help—it’s there to steal, albeit legally …”

Similarly, The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney sums up the film as “A story of cowboys and Indians … in a place where both the cowpoke and the warrior have been pushed to near extinction by the greed and heartlessness of the New West …”

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
Hell or High Water (2016) – source: CBS Films

The Telegraph’s Tim Robey went so far as to place the blame for the economic conditions: “The villain, then, is the US financial system, and the backdrop economic misery …” Robey’s headline even went a step further, emphasizing the importance of the film’s social consciousness with regards to wealth inequality by characterizing it as a morality play, declaring it “a chase movie with a moral conscience that’s neither obvious nor one-sided.”

Critics about American Honey

By contrast, when American Honey premiered a few days earlier, it was not uncommon for critics to observe the role that poverty plays in the film as merely a driver of subgenre. Critics from TheWrap and Variety alike specifically used the term “picaresque” to describe the downtrodden nature of the meandering narrative.

Other critics made similarly surface-level appraisals of the role that poverty played in the film. From comparing the film to “Arnold’s UK working-class tale” Fish Tank, to describing the film’s anti-narrative structure as a “series of stanzas about the underrepresented struggles of work-classing life” to stating that it “follow[s] a group of lower-class youths with a rambling, naturalist eye,” the take of many a critic on the role of poverty in the film comprised little more than a perfunctory class consciousness of its characters.

The lone exception to this rule was Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who, in making a reference to the film’s thematic literary predecessor, hinted at the notion that the poverty glimpsed in the film is in part a result of an empty economic promise on which the country was founded:

“In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller used the defeat of a door-to-door peddler to shatter the defining myth of a country where opportunity, material gain and personal fulfillment are there for the taking. But it’s doubtful the playwright could ever have imagined the traveling sales crew in American Honey, a mob of teenage drifters … selling something no one wants”.

Perhaps this pattern of appraisal of the film was observed because all of Arnold’s work, save for her Cannes-shunned adaptation of Wuthering Heights, has dealt with characters of a similar socioeconomic status. Critics might be inclined to overlook the thematic purpose of featuring such characters, dismissing American Honey’s “underclass,” in the words of co-star Shia LaBeouf at the film’s festival press conference, as nothing more than the documentary-style director’s choice of profile subject.

Other coverage of the film, however, suggests that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Arnold’s choice of subjects. What sets American Honey apart from Arnold’s preceding work is not only the fact that it is her first feature set in the U.S.  It’s also her critical reaction to the particular poverty she observed in the region.

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
American Honey (2016) – source: A24

At the film’s press conference, Arnold described how a road trip across the U.S. she conducted as research for the film opened her eyes not only to the country’s income disparities, but also to the disparities between the U.S. and the U.K. when it came to aiding impoverished citizens:

“I got to see an awful lot as I was traveling. I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to. It seemed really different to me than in the U.K. When people don’t have money, they can’t get health care and they can’t do things like go to the dentist, and those kinds of things really shocked me … They said they were dishing out pain killers to older people and antidepressants to young people. It was a tiny, tiny town and they said there was a lot of addiction to both those things in that town.”

More than “poverty porn”

Arnold’s appraisal of the America she glimpsed is cause for consideration of the film’s portrayal of the lower-class as more than a mere aesthetic evocation of bleakness used as a guilt trap for capturing one’s audience, or the “poverty porn” label against which the director has defended her past work. In addition, she specifically described the characters as “a small potted version of the American dream. They’re working hard at selling themselves, which is what capitalism is all about”.

From the outset, both American Honey and Hell or High Water employed images of poverty, signaling that economic inequality was not only a driver of the films’ plots, but also a significant theme that they would probe. The inciting action of both films, at least on the surface, is driven by a lack of resources: Star’s justification to her mother for leaving behind her family is “I got a job”; in Hell or High Water, Toby orchestrates an entire heist and getaway in the name of ensuring that his sons need not struggle financially the way he and his brother had.

But in both films, the initial images that signal poverty are crafted so that the viewer virtually cannot ignore them. In the case of American Honey, this initial image addresses the issue of food insecurity, and is one that can’t be overlooked due to the visceral reaction (perhaps more accurately described as a gag reflex) it’s liable to provoke.

Finding food in trash in American Honey

This image can be found in the film’s opening sequence, in which 17-year-old Star, glistening with the sweat of a multi-mile trek in midday Oklahoma sun, fishes expired and discarded food from a grocery store dumpster with her younger sister and brother in tow.

She’s just come upon her greatest catch of the day: a whole pre-wrapped chicken, whose blood-drenched & plastic wrapped surface. It looks particularly inedible in the seemingly perpetual sunset tones of Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, signalling how long the chicken has been baking in the sun’s heat – in a trash-filled dumpster of an oven.

As though regarding a chicken that had been rotting in a dumpster as a novelty – a treat, even – is not enough to both foreground the concept of poverty and arrest the viewer’s attention by way of inducing disgust, the subsequent scene hits the concept over the head, literally and figuratively. Star’s younger brother drags the chicken home and around their kitchen, where he repeatedly bashes it on the ground, stomps on it, and likely dispels some of the red liquid between the plastic casing and the chicken itself in the process.

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
American Honey (2016) – source: A24

By the time the chicken reaches their home, it can rarely be considered top grade meat; but once inside the home, it is not only past its expiration date and rendered trash; it’s also brutalized. The brutalization upon entrance into the home later proves to have foreshadowed Star’s physical and sexual harassment—being groped like nothing more than a piece of meat—which occurs at the hands of her own father, in her own home.

Through this ritual, the basic human need of food is at once deconstructed and stripped of any simple dignity that the act of obtaining it may possess. Instead of “bringing home the bacon,” they’ve dragged home the chicken—inferior to pork, as a socioeconomic indicator, due to its lower fat content—and bludgeoned it, to boot.

In fact, the boy’s beating of the chicken could be interpreted as a symbolic attempt to reclaim the hunter-gatherer process in the context of both an era that has relinquished it in favor of mass food production and a socioeconomic status that affords him only food that is past its peak.

There is a gleeful sense of abandon that pervades the sequence; the chicken has already seen the inside of the dumpster, so how much could kicking it around like a soccer ball really hurt it? Perhaps it is this practical insight towards which Arnold wishes most to incline our attention. Raised primarily by the harried Star, her siblings were never taught that food is something that should be guarded from contamination – since, after all, their food came from the dumpster, the same place as the trash.

The bottom feeders of Hell or High Water

Similarly, Hell or High Water clearly establishes the impoverished predicament not only of its two principal characters (quickly revealed within its first few minutes to be small-time bank robbers with the sole intent of paying off a reverse mortgage on their family’s ranch and claiming the oil beneath it), but also of their fellow West Texas community members.

Although the film opens with their first bank robbery, the first clue that these robbers are sensitive to the similar plights of their fellow West Texas denizens comes in an exchange between older brother and father Toby and the only patron in the first bank they rob.

When chided by his ex-convict brother for not foisting the patron’s gun, Toby gingerly retrieves it from the man’s hip holster with far less brutality than one might be tempted to expect, given his brother’s loudmouthed aggression. “Y’all gonna steal my gun, too?,” the patron, a hardy white-haired Texan, retorts.

In response, Toby makes a decidedly genteel clarification, one that would not be warranted were his own financial straits not so dire, and by extension, were he not so conscious of the vulnerability to dispossession faced by his fellow citizens: “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank.”

Though the line doesn’t necessarily strike the viewer as important the first time he or she hears it in the midst of the somewhat comical tension of the first robbery scene, its significance is very quickly elucidated once the brothers are caught in a chase with the cops. Along the winding route between are perched multiple road signs espousing “debt relief” and fast cash.

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
Hell or High Water (2016) – source: CBS Films

These are the marks of a financial fallout of the recession having already occurred in the region, one that was only perpetuated by big banks swooping into ghost towns to scoop up already-foreclosed properties. The proprietors of such signs are the virtual bottom feeders on the carcasses of these already depleted towns, attempting to exploit them – to use a comparison consistent with American Honey’s chicken dilemma – down to the very last scrap of meat.

The cycle of poverty

But neither film stops after clearly establishing the role that poverty plays in the lives of its characters. Instead, these in-your-face motifs recur throughout the films, their repetition embodying the relentlessness of the so-called “cycle of poverty.”

The concept of food insecurity so poignantly expressed in the opening scene of American Honey is reiterated later on. When, after being tasked with selling magazines in a poor neighborhood, Star comes across a house whose door is answered by a young boy and girl about the ages of her own brother and sister, with a meth addict mother. They have nothing in the fridge but a bottle of Mountain Dew, a beverage whose significance, in light of recent debates of how the sale of sugared beverages exploits the health of the poor, is pointed.

After her visit, Star uses the money she’s earned from selling magazines to buy this family, who undoubtedly reminds her of the brother and sister she abandoned to join the crew, the groceries she, only weeks before, could not afford. While this is certainly a gesture intended to establish Star’s purity of heart, the kind manner with which she treats the children initially, even fully indulging the girl’s obsession with singing heavy metal, would have been sufficient to accomplish this.

Instead, the scene functions as a reminder that poverty in the midwest is so prevalent that, for every member of the lower class who, like Star, manages to take full advantage of the meager financial opportunities presented to them, there will always be others, like these children and Star’s own siblings, who are left behind, rendered incapable of escaping the cycle, either by age or circumstance.

American mistrust of corporations and law enforcement

Similarly, Hell or High Water’s initial message of “debt relief” is repeated relentlessly throughout the film, primarily literally, with the camera continuously taking note of these signs nearly each time the characters hit the open road.

Additionally, the parallelistic pattern of dialogue that characterized Toby’s exchange with the bank patron in the first robbery scene is mirrored in an exchange between Jeff Bridges’ Ranger, Marcus, and the patron of a diner next door to one of the branched that the brothers robbed.

“Y’all been here for a while?,” Marcus asks. The diner patron, a rugged and middle aged Texan archetype not so dissimilar from the bank patron, responds with a similarly parallelistic line: “Long enough to watch the bank gettin’ robbed, it’s been robbing me for thirty years.”

The repetition of a scene containing this dialogue structure, in which a question is met with a parallelistic statement implicating the bank, drives home the notion that it’s the bank, not the robbers, who are the real enemies of the state.

These exchanges, however, are also part of a broader framework, a tapestry of supporting characters that punctuate the slow-boiling action, weaving throughout it the fabric of the everyday reality of those burnt by the banks, to which Deadline, and the director himself, drew distinct attention, underscoring the importance of these performances to the setting that the film attempted to depict:

“If you listen closely to the minor, supporting characters in the movie, they recount the film’s bigger tale of rural Texans’ middle-class woes … ‘I was very well aware that these minor characters were really the world of the film, and it would live or die by these minor characters and because it’s picturesque, you meet them once and move on,’ Mackenzie explains”.

Another such one-off encounter features a diner waitress who saucily refuses to hand over the $200 tip that Toby left her as evidence, because she, like so many others, has a mortgage to pay. This encounter is particularly effective for an American audience, since it communicates the notion of a populace still reeling from the recession by deftly pressing on the lingering, dual national sore spot of mistrust of both corporations and law enforcement, an extension of the government that failed to save them from the economic crash in the first place.

Palettes of poverty

Along with story elements, both films utilized stylized visual elements to communicate the emptiness of the promise of the American dream. Not only did both films contrast this intermittent imagery of poverty with beautiful cinematography of American landscapes, seducing the viewer with the empty promise of “America the beautiful” that is inextricably intertwined with the idea of the American dream. They also drew upon the natural color schemes of their respective landscapes to craft expressive color palettes.

The palette of Hell or High Water is appropriate for the Texas ghost towns through which its story meanders, sucked dry from a corporate pillaging, anchored in dusty browns and blues, symbolic of withering and bludgeons. Save for a few sparse splotches of greenery, the film as been drained of the colors that signify life, particularly, the red of passion, the undertones of flesh and blood.

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
Hell or High Water (2016) -source: CBS Films

Indeed, aside from the neon of an Indian reservation casino in nearby Oklahoma, the sole splash of a red truer than adobe clay in the Texas-set portion of the film comes when Tanner wears a red flannel shirt, signaling the bloodshed he will inflict, as well as that to which he will succumb, later that day.

While Hell or High Water is void of most color not dictated by its dusty landscape, American Honey is a kaleidoscope by comparison. The variety and vividness of the colors evoke the sensory overstimulation of youth, while their slightly sunburnt saturation encases the film in a sense of memory, or premature nostalgia, also inextricably linked to adolescence.

Similarly, as Rooney alluded to in his observation that the film’s academy ratio allows “all these youthful misadventures play, appropriately enough, like Instagram in motion,” the cropped frame and obviously enhanced colors also evoke this digital generation’s propensity for the creation of the instant past.

Empty promises of prosperity

Here, bright colors have a dual purpose, signifying both the working class and America, and if not American gaudiness – that undeniable offshoot of American capitalism – then the country’s natural splendor, which the film makes a point of dwelling on.

The lime green terrycloth sundress in which Krystal outfits Star, in a delightfully reflexive twist of sub-class condescension in which the lower class teens “dress up” like “white trash” in an attempt to elicit the pity of oil field workers, does not merely signal her socioeconomic status. When coupled with bright blue eyeshadow (which, since she’s not seen sporting it at any other time during the movie, one can safely assume was deliberately added to heighten the intended effect) her ensemble matches the green grass and blue sky rolling behind her once she is perched in the oil workers’ truck, allowing her to blend in, or become one with, the landscape.

One can read this scene as a subversive statement that it is the lowest class, even when mocked by those who can barely be considered their economic superiors, that best embodies those ideals (such as the concept of “natural beauty”) we hold most American. But the reading that most closely aligns with the rest of the film is viewing Star and the landscape as a juxtaposition rather than a matched pair.

Together they imply that the natural beauty of America’s landscape is its empty promise of prosperity. Its mass-produced garments, probably manufactured outside of the U.S. (eliminating jobs these kids or their parents may have once held) and with the most synthetic of materials, are the disappointing reality of this dream for many Americans, the best benefit that the bottom of the 99% can hope to reap from the capitalist economic system: cheap, colorful clothes.

Music emphasizing disparity

Perhaps due to its anti-narrative, genre-defying structure, when it comes to condemning the nation’s bedrock ideal of economic opportunity, American Honey has an ace up its sleeve to which no feature of Hell or High Water, with its by-the-numbers Western formatting, can compare.

Hailed an “exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical,” as well as “a kind of grimy musical about the subjective energy that comes with living in the moment,” critics agreed that, in the words of one, “The use of music is exhilarating throughout” American Honey. The film’s incorporation of pop music (the most inherently consumerist type, in its nominal purpose of appealing to the masses) is easily overlooked as a driver of the film’s mood, an orchestration of its emotional highs and lows.

American Money: What AMERICAN HONEY & HELL OR HIGH WATER Say About Poverty In The U.S.
American Honey (2016) – source: A24

In reality, the use of pop music is the film’s clearest indicator of just how far the reality American dream is from those traditionally most invested in it: the idealistic youth. Most of the musical selections are rap or R&B, which is first and foremost ironic, since all of the film’s characters are from the Midwest, and nearly all of them are white.

In typical rap fashion, though, these songs have one main, capitalist conceit: the almighty dollar. The crew’s psych-up song “Choices (Yup),”—to which the film’s cast jammed out on the Palais steps during the film’s premiere, underpinning its status as a theme song of sorts, repeats the lyrics “Everybody get choices/I choose to get money, I’m stuck to this bread/… But I never go broke (no, no, no) … If you broke, you ain’t like me (no, no, no).”

“We Found Love (In a Hopeless Place)” is the Rihanna track that accompanies the film’s most memorable musical moment. While the titular lyric is more than fitting for the Walmart in which this scene takes place, the song itself is set in an upscale club, one that includes luxuries like “yellow diamonds in the light,” an environment which these teens have never experienced, and likely never will.

Then, there’s the smattering of country songs, which perhaps portrays most achingly the disparity between the lifestyle they have been sold by American pop music, and the reality of the life they’re living, since the genre of country should theoretically be most familiar to these rural adolescents. But the the charmingly begrudging romance of Lee Brice’s “I Don’t Dance” is transmuted into an ironically nightmarish key when it becomes the soundtrack to which Star’s father feels her up.

Similarly, the Lady Antebellum track from which the film takes its title, to which the crew sings along in the van near the film’s conclusion, features the lyrics “She grew up on a side of the road/Where the church bells ring and strong love grows/She grew up good/She grew up slow/Like American honey … Oh I miss those days as the years go by/Oh nothing’s sweeter than summertime/And American honey.”

Hypnotic power of the American Dream

Lodge writes that the song is “beautifully deployed here as an unabashedly sentimental singalong.” Sentimental, indeed, but from what we know about these quasi-runaways, this sentimentality is a nostalgia for something they likely have not experienced, for a childhood much purer and more comfortable than the ones that culminated in them joining a roving band of strangers selling magazines.

Perhaps there is no better testament to the hypnotic power of the American dream than, when consumed through popular culture, it not only has the power to make Americans believe in their ability to improve their own futures, but also to retrospectively convince them that their past was not so bad as it once seemed.

Guest Author

Danielle Moore

Danielle Moore

Danielle is a student at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication. She’s a writer, city lover, pop culture critic.

Find Danielle on Twitter, Instagram and her website.

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