A recent Hollywood blockbuster puts reverse mortgages at the center of conflict in a western thriller about two brothers going to extreme lengths to preserve their family home. Suspenseful, gritty and, at times, comical, the film is a wild box office pleasure, but it likely won’t do much to repair the already bruised reputation of reverse mortgages in the public eye.
“Hell or High Water” (2016) is the story of two brothers, divorced father Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard, trying to save their family’s West Texas home from foreclosure following the death of their mother, a reverse mortgage borrower. Saddled with a hefty loan balance to repay, the brothers embark on a series of bank robberies to raise the funds needed to settle the lien so they may keep the home. As the Howard Bros. carry out the robberies, on their trail is an aging lawman (Jeff Bridges) not yet ready to hang up the badge.
Although a reverse mortgage debt is what ultimately sets the events of the story in motion, the term “reverse mortgage” itself is used sparingly throughout the film. In fact, we only come to know that the late Mrs. Howard had a reverse mortgage about halfway through the story, when the Howard Bros. meet with the executor of their mother’s estate who says they’ll need to come up with $43,000 to prevent the bank from foreclosing on their mother’s property. This debt, according to the executor, includes the reverse mortgage loan balance as well as back taxes that the bank paid on Mrs. Howard’s behalf.
Naturally, with a reverse mortgage, the Howard brothers would have the option to simply walk away from the property. But then that would make for a pretty short, and frankly, a dull film. The plot thickens once it becomes known that the ranch home sits on a parcel of oil-rich land worth retaining.
Few other details are given about the reverse mortgage, which was expected. Though it would have added another dimension of realism to the circumstances to know whether Mrs. Howard took her reverse mortgages as a fixed-rate lump sum, of if she took the loan prior to the Financial Assessment, it is understandable for the filmmakers to omit such details in favor of entertainment.
At the most basic interpretation, by vaguely touching on the product, “Hell or High Water” perpetuates the perception of reverse mortgages as predatory loans against vulnerable seniors. But the inclusion and outright mentioning of reverse mortgages doesn’t come across like a personal attack on the product, or even intended as a cautionary tale to suggest that moviegoers beware of these loans. Rather, the storyline makes reverse mortgages seem more like a plot device within the film’s broader commentary on rich vs. poor.
As the Howard Bros. knock off bank after bank, they take pleasure in the irony of stealing from their mother’s reverse mortgage lender, the fictional Texas Midlands Bank, to whom they are repaying the loan balance using stolen bills. It’s a twisted version of the Robin Hood complex that fits appropriately with the film’s recurring theme that holds a general disdain for the banking and financial services industries.
It is within this theme that “Hell or High Water” pegs reverse mortgages as a scapegoat, if not merely to justify the actions of its lead characters, but to also make them appear more sympathetic.
So while the film probably won’t alleviate any of the negative perceptions that exist for these products, perhaps it can, at the very least, foster more conversations as to what reverse mortgages really are, what they provide, and how they can help senior homeowners.
Written by Jason Oliva