Robbers, Rangers, and Recession Make for Rewarding Cinema
DIRECTED BY DAVID MACKENZIE/2016
Like most things, there’s a lot more to this story.
Hell or High Water – In the forgotten, sweltering decay of poor Texas small towns, one is a lot more likely than the other.
On the surface, director David Mackenzie’s latest film is a taut crime story about a pair of brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard, (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) hopscotching from one dead, tumbleweed Texas town to the next robbing local banks out of desperation, and the seasoned rangers, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, who pursue them (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). It’s perfectly viable to enjoy this cinematically solid movie on that level. Hell or High Water will draw you in and keep you watching to the end.
But going immediately deeper, one hits oil. Celebrated Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan invites, even encourages an examination of The Broader State of Things. Why are these things happening to these people, to this town? Why is this town, and the several like it, this way? Who are these people, really? How do we identify with their pursuits, their obsessions, their relationships with each other and the past? Hell or High Water is the rare cat-and-mouse potboiler that could be discussed for days, boiling on and on.
The theme that is most apparent, and perhaps strongest is that of brotherhood. There is, of course, the most obvious brotherhood, the Howards. One gets the impression that they’ve never been particularly close, and yet, when push comes to shove, one will back the other, even in the face of the law. What does it take to put on a ski mask and wave a gun around in a bank while making deadly threats? $1000 here, $1000 there means that they’re going to have to do a lot of that to make their goal. Even with differing moral codes and stability levels, the familial bond goes a long way to keep them going.
Is there something… admirable about what the Howards are doing…? Mackenzie and Sheridan slyly lure viewers to their sympathy, as, like Pulp Fiction, we spend considerable time with them before and after the heists. Time in the car, chit chat in diners, horsing around on their family property. These guys may not be “okay”, and clearly what they’re doing isn’t right (Or is it? They’re sticking it to the banks, man!), but they’re “real”.
Just as real are the rangers who are hot on their tails. Maybe “hot” is the wrong word. Bridges’ Hamilton is delightfully up to his familiar raspy swagger and verbalizing, ala True Grit. Mere weeks from retirement, he’s savoring this One Last Case, making a lackadaisical regional tour of it for himself and his native American partner, Parker. Both are salt of the earth men of Christian faith who express it in different ways.
Hamilton loves to goad Parker, ribbing him at one point for his choice to watch a televangelist on their hotel room TV. Less in the mood for Hamilton’s casual blind remarks about race and whatnot, the weary Parker caves and changes the channel to sports. Bridges’ coughed up response of “Now this is what God watches!” is amusing. But, it’s also a momentary microcosm reflecting America’s shameful history of white men bullying and suppressing Indians. If one were to read it that way. Somewhere, Hamilton shares a bond with Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino.
While the current outgoing president is never mentioned by name, the chronological fact of the matter is that the oft-unspoken world of these characters is a big part of Obama’s America. People used to live there for purpose, now they live there because they’re stuck. The hope and change that was promised eight years ago is now a shrug, a kind of glass salvation that’s been clear to some, closed to others, and fragile to all.
Such glass is actualized in an opening tracking shot, following a lone woman across the parking lot of the bank she works in. Just across the street, and framed up unmistakably intentional for just a few seconds, are three glass block cross windows of a neighboring church. There’s something lonely, almost “left over” about not just these crosses and what they represent, but entire town. Boarded up buildings, sparse morning traffic, former restaurants and shops now sport signs reading “Fast cash now!” and “Cash for gold!”.
Positively evoking Jason Aaron’s great Vertigo comic book series Scalped in both tone and milieu, Hell or High Water also features Indian-owned casinos, front and center. The casinos are essential to the Howards’ scheme, and all the time spent in them is the kind of go-nowhere false blinking-neon appeasement that one would rightly expect of such a place. And once again, the subtext is rich for those willing to partake. Even when the one seriously attractive woman in any of these places comes onto Chris Pine’s Toby in an aggressively hot and heavy manner, the sheer unsexiness of his surroundings (the standard gaudy gloom of any given casino, compounded) and burden of his plight that got him there in the first place conspire to get her nowhere with him.
While Pine, venturing out of his usual blockbuster leading man stable, is a bit of a revelation, his presence is nonetheless the one nick in Hell or High Water‘s otherwise spot-on veneer. His eyes, his eyebrows, his unyielding movie star good looks… Pine can’t help coming across as a movie star in real world dress-up. Only later in the film does this effectively fall away, no doubt a result of the direction he takes his character in.
Guns, money, history, justice, and the fragility and even randomness of the American Dream flit in and around this completely absorbing Texas tale. (Actually shot in Arizona, not that anyone would know.) With no easy answers, Hell or High Water is the type of story where any survivors must carry the burden of it all to the grave. Miss it, and you’ll be missing one of best and most rewarding films of the year.