Liberty at the movies: Hell or High Water, Equity, Don't Breathe

Hell or High Water, Don't Breathe, and Equity are three "small" films that, while not pro-liberty or even explicitly political, cast an interesting look at life in the post-"great recession" era.

Don't Breathe has (justifiably) become the surprise break out hit of the summer and one of the most profitable as it has brought in over a $100 million at the box office on a $9 million budget.

Don't Breathe tells the story of three teenager thieves in Detroit, Alex, Rocky, and Money. Alex's dad works for a home security company giving Alex easy access to the homes of many Detroit residents. All he needs to do is steal a target's security code to disable the security system and viola! Alex, Rocky, and Money have a fool proof means of breaking and entering.

Alex does this because he has a not-so-secret crush on Rocky, who steals because she is desperate to get money to leave her (at least emotionally) abusive mother and move to California. Rocky thinks she has found the solution to her problems when she learns on of Alex's dad is a blind gulf war veteran holding a large amount of cash in his house. The cash was a settlement he got from a wealthy family whose daughter killed the veteran's daughter in a hit-and-run.

So the trio break into the old man's house, figuring it will be an easy score. However, this old blind man has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and what was supposed to be an easy score turns into a terrifying cat-and-mouse game.

Rather than the blood-and-gore common to modern horror, Don't Breathe relies on old fashioned suspense to generate fear, like the scene where one of the three thieves must stand motionless while holding their breath (hence the title of the movie). I don't think it is too much of a stretch to call the movie Hitchcockian.

Many of the reviews have focused on a particular twist regarding a secret discovered in the old man's basement. I agree with those who say the twist does not really add anything to the strength of the story and (by making the old man less sympathetic) may have weakened its impact.

While the film is not explicitly political, the story of Don't Breathe shows the human fallout from America's failed foreign and economic policies. The old man lost his sight as a result of his service in the failed wars of the Bush-Obama years, yet, as far as we can tell, he has been abandoned by the government. Rocky, Alex, and Money turned to crime because the failed economic policies pursued at all levels of government have left them with little or no other economic opportunities.

The suffering imposed on average Americans is shown by the fact that the old man is the only remaining resident on his street. Everyone else fled the economic chaos that is the inevitable result of big government policies. (Of course, Detroit, thanks to its bankruptcy is an easy target, and the idea that Detroit is some sort of modern wasteland is certainly exaggerated by the mainstream media.  However, I would bet that many cities have, or are on the verge of having, neighborhoods turned in to ghost towns in wake of the great rescission and the failure of the Federal Reserve and the government to produce real economy growth).

Hell or High Water is old fashioned "heist" movie. The film is quite entertaining and powerful despite its use on numerous cliches, including making the robbers as, if not more, sympathetic than their victims.

The film tells the story of two brothers, Toby, a divorced blue-collar oil worker trying to provide for his ex-wife and sons, and Taylor a wild ex-con. The brothers discover that that their recently deceased mother's land has oil. However, the family may not be able to benefit from the oil since they are about to lose the ranch to a bank getting ready to foreclose.

So Toby, with the enthusiastic help of his brother, decide to pay the mortgage by robbing banks. Toby does not plan on personally profiting form the oil. His only interest in it is as a way to ensure his sons escape what he calls the "sickness" of poverty. (See what I mean about making the thefts sympathetic.)

The brothers are pursued by two Texas Ranchers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker. Hamilton is a grizzled cynical veteran who is close to retirement. Parker is his younger half-Mexican, half native American partner. Hamilton is a top-notch investigator who quickly figures out the brothers patterns. Hamilton's favorite source of amusement is to insult his partner with at best politically-incorrect and at worst shockingly racist comments about his heritage.

Parker returns Hamilton's barbs with quips about Hamilton's character and age. It is clear from the start that there is an unstated but unbreakable bond between them (and yes, this is a cliche borrowed from buddy cop movies).

Another cliche used in the film is the "devious bankers taking advantage of common people." Toby and Taylor do not view themselves as theives but as modern day Robin Hoods taking back money unfairly stolen by the banks that purposefully ensured their mother would spend her life in debt till the banks decided it was in their interest to foreclose.

The mother is not the only person the movie portrays as someone with a grudge against banks.  In one scene, the sheriff asked a dinner customer if he knows anything about who robbed the bank next door. The customer says :"You mean he bank that has been robbing me for years?" In the same scene, the diner's waitress refuses to give up the $200 tip the brothers left her because she needs it to pay her rent.

We are obviously supposed to sympathize with these people. However, the film never asked if the banks are really responsible for their situation or if the individuals blaming the banks are responsible for their own bad life choices. To add another layer of complexity, are those choices influenced by a Federal Reserve created bubble that leads them going into debt seem like a rational choice in an era of easy credit? And even if these people are suffering the result of their own bad choices don't they have legitimate grievances against a system that bails out the big banks while throwing the "little guys" to the wolves?

Our third movie, Equity, deals with those who got bailed out. Equity has gotten most attention for being the first "Wall Street thriller" featuring a female protagonist, as well as being written and directed by women. However, libertarians may be more interested in what the film says about insider trading and the overzealous prosecutors who "police" Wall Street.

As the title suggests, Equity deals with the world of  Initial Pubic Offerings (IPO's). Equity's main character is Naomi Bishop, an ambitious Wall Street investment banker working on an IPO for a tech company that claims to offer online services with a full-proof method of protecting its users privacy.

Bishop is trying to make partner in her firm and this IPO is her make-or-break moment. Bishop faces a number of advisories, including an ambiguous assistant and Benji, her boyfriend, who works at the same firm and "supplants" his income by leaking inside information about the firm's clients to a hedge funds manger.

Naomi's greatest nemeses is Chan, an old college friend turned lawyer for the SEC. Chan is determined to build a case again Benji and his friend and tries to use her friendship with Naomi to dig up dirt on him. When Naomi sees through Chan's attempt to use her to setup her boyfriend, Chan gets one of Benji's accomplices to incriminate himself. She does this by pretending to be an intoxicated acquaintance who is romantically interested in the trader. She pretends that she already knows about his involvement in insider trading and thus gets him to divulge more details.

While watching the young trader fall under Chan's charm is amusing, watching the government use this techniques to get someone to incriminate themselves is in many ways as chilling as anything in Don't Breathe.

I won't spoil the ending, except to say it does involve insider trading by Benji regarding information suggesting the internet company's privacy protections are not so invulnerable.

This information is the type of information that should be known by potential investors and consumers, and would eventually come to light. So in a sense Benji saved potential investors money.

So, while we are supposed to view Benji as the villain of the piece (and by using information against the interest of his employer, he may have violated his employment contract and deserves termination or worse), the film does illustrate how insider trading facilitates the efficient operation of markets.

Here is Robert Murphy explaining why insider trading should not be treated as a crime.

Don't Breathe, Hell or High Water, and Equity are three excellent films that, while not expressly political, illustrate how the polices of war, crony capitalism, regulation, and fiat money have impacted the lives of Americans. If you are unable to catch these films in the theater, then definitely make an effort to see them on Blue Ray, DVD, or download.

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