Sunday morning, September 11, 2016.
Toby Howard: “How have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Tanner Howard: “It’s been difficult.”
The Howard brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster, left) and Toby (Chris Pine, right) rest up and reflect after their most recent bank robbery in director David Mackenzie’s sad, ironic, and political contemporary western Hell or High Water.
Hell or High Water’s one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a long time.
It’s also one of the saddest.
And one of the most overtly political.
If I had world enough and time I might make the case that it does a better job of examining the causes of the economic collapse of 2008 and its subsequent devastations than The Big Short. In The Big Short the victims are mostly invisible and the few villains we see are mainly clowns. The evil being perpetrated’s an abstraction that needs constant cinematic tricks and stunts to keep it in focus.
There’s nothing abstract in Hell or High Water and the victims and their sufferings are almost never off screen.
To be clear right way, Hell or High Water is a contemporary western. Like the TV series Justified, it transplants themes, tropes, conventions, and stock characters established in classic westerns to the 21st Century United States. Hell or High Water is even set in the west. West Texas, to be exact. But unlike Justified, Hell or High Water’s western-ness isn’t a matter of the filmmakers’ taking poetic license.
Justified turns Kentucky coal country into a modern day Tombstone in order to give Marshal Raylan Givens an excuse to act like Wyatt Earp and get away with racking up a body count that would fill several movie Boot Hills to capacity. It really isn’t much of a stretch but it’s a stretch to have Boyd Crowder and the rest of the criminal Crowders and Bennetts behaving like the Clanton Gang and the Cowboys who ran Tombstone before the Earps came to town. But it takes a good deal of our willingness to suspend disbelief to accept every other episode including a version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
I wouldn’t call Hell or High Water a model of cinematic realism. But the picture it presents of economically blasted West Texas as the the Wild West or, rather, not as far removed from the days when it was the Wild West, has an essential realism.
The historical fact is that once upon a time the Wild West began just a short walk up from the beach at Plymouth, Massachusetts. A better name for the Wild West would be the western frontier and the story of the Taming of the West is the story of white settlement pushing the boundaries of the frontier farther and farther west.
The stuff of the legends, myths, and tall tales and the characters and exploits of the pioneers, immigrants, frontiersmen and women, heroes, folk heroes, and villains that have become in our collective imagination the story of the Taming of the West as we know it mainly from movies and TV began with the settlement of the wildnernesses of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
It’s not unrealistic or at all ahistorical to see George Washington as one of our first frontiersmen heroes. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, which are set in what are now some of the more touristy spots of upstate New York, are literature’s first Westerns. The second part of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which focuses on the second generation of Puritan settlers in New England and their part in King Philip’s War, reads like a prequel to Cooper---written by a smart writer who took to heart Mark Twain’s furious contempt for Cooper’s writing---and includes a heroic Indian fighter who rivals Hawkeye in derring-do, fighting and tracking skill, and luck in surviving dangerous and bloody adventures and it’s all true. Mayflower is non-fiction. And what I’m saying is that much of what we think of as legend, tall tale, and myth is part of the true history of the of the often bloody “civilizing” of the frontier.
At one point, the West Texas of Hell or High Water was one of the farthest reaches of the frontier and it remained on the frontier for a longer time than other places on the continent where civilization took hold faster and more deeply. Basically, West Texas was what we think of as the Wild West long after the rest of the west was won and in defining economic ways it stayed the Wild West right up until the beginning of the 21st Century.
And what we see in the movie is that for many people West Texas as they’ve always known it is reverting back to the frontier it was when their ancestors arrived.
It’s important to keep in mind that a key part of the history of the taming of the West is white, English-speaking people stealing land from other people who were there ahead of them, people who in most places were Native Americans. But the English and their descendants also stole land from the French, Dutch, and Spanish while they were at it.
That the land we’re all living on today is mostly stolen land is a theme of Hell or High Water.
A Texas Ranger, who’s part Mexican and part-Comanche while without question being all Texan and all American, observes that the land the economically hard-pressed white people of West Texas feel being stolen out from under them by the banks and oil companies was stolen by their ancestors from his Mexican ancestors who in turn had stolen it from his Comanche ancestors who in their turn had stolen it from other Native American tribes.
This makes Hell or High Water an ironic tragedy. There’s a poetic justice in the people we’re rooting for, represented by the failed rancher turned bank robber, having their land stolen from them.
There’s another irony at work too, and that’s our recognizing that while we’re aware that their ancestors stole the land, in other movies we’re meant to root for those ancestors to get away with the theft.
This makes it hard to know who and what to root for in Hell or High Water.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two sons he very much doesn’t want following in his footsteps. He’s been a sometime roughneck in the oil fields, a sometime ranch hand on his mother’s small and far from prospering ranch, and pretty much a full-time failure. Up until recently, he took a life full of hardship, money woes, and disappointment for granted. But his mother has died, leaving behind nothing but a pile of medical bills and the ranch and the ranch is facing foreclosure. His mother had fallen behind paying off the loan she been talked into taking predatory terms by unscrupulous bankers. The ranch itself isn’t worth much as a ranch. Toby’d only worked it to help out his mother and he’s not attached to it. He’d just as soon let it go except...oil’s been discovered on the property.
This is Toby’s big chance, but he sees as not a chance for himself but for his sons. Problem is the oil company won’t start drilling and paying out unless he owns the place free and clear. He has to pay off the bank---forty-three thousand dollars in a matter of a couple of weeks.
He comes up with a plan to raise the money by robbing the very chain of banks looking to foreclose. Looking forward to foreclosing. The banks want that oil money too.
Toby, who has always been an honest man if not a successful one, enlists his ex-convict brother in the scheme. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has just finished doing a stretch in prison for killing a man in a bar fight. This was his second murder. He was never charged for the first one he’d committed. He’d shot his the brothers’ abusive father. That one got passed off as a hunting accident. Point is, Tanner is a man of uncertain temper, violent impulses, a live for the moment and to hell with the consequences philosophy, and a guilty conscience. He’s the type who tends to maximize trouble by way of solving a problem.
But he’s brave as all get-out---mainly because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies---and he’s fiercely loyal to Toby. He’s the older brother and he killed their father to protect his little brother.
Toby’s plan is to rob a string of the bank’s branches, taking only relatively small scores in small bills so they can’t be traced, until they’ve raised the required forty-three grand which he’s figured out how to launder. It’s a clever plan but it gives the Texas Rangers who are soon on their trail time to figure out more or less what they’re up to and start anticipating their next moves.
The two Rangers after the Howards are Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a cynical and worn-down days away from retirement but still almost as brilliant and fearless an investigator as he was in his prime, and his longtime---and longsuffering. Hamilton is deliberately difficult to get along with.---partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), the Ranger I mentioned above who voices and embodies the movie’s central irony. He’s a man of two worlds. In his Mexican and Indian heritages, he represents both West Texas’ frontier past and its diverse, post-agricultural, knowledge-based white-collar future.
Hamilton, too, is a man of two worlds. In temperament and by virtue of his own history as a Ranger, he’s a throwback to the old-fashioned lawman of classic Westerns. But on principle and through dint of intelligence, education, professional training, and common sense, he’s very much a modern police officer and detective. He knows what the future’s bringing and he’d be looking forward to it, if only he could be part of it. Forced retirement’s getting in the way of that. But it still makes him someone whose heart is divided between two worlds he can’t be part of, the lingering Wild West of his glory days and the bright civilized future he fatalistically figures he won’t live long enough to enjoy witnessing let alone be an active part of. Retirement, as a consequence, is looking to him like a state of death in life.
No surprise then that he’s clinging hard to the present moment and enjoying maybe a little too much the chase they’re on after the bank robbers. It’s his last hurrah. Alberto, though, worries that Hamilton’s looking to go out in a blaze of glory.
Hell or High Water, then, is the story of three desperately unhappy men, Hamilton and the two Howards, at the ends of their ropes, with only one of them, Toby, feeling he has anything left to lose.
Hamilton and Tanner seem to be having a high old time playing out a real life western, Tanner seeing it as a game of cowboy and Indian, with himself as the Indian. But at bottom both are as sad and sick at heart as Toby, and the three men’s different sadnesses are part of what makes Hell or High Water that saddest of westerns I described it as up top.
But that sadness doesn’t stop it from being an exciting western or a fun one.
Finally cutting to the chase, which is the opposite of what director David Mackenzie has done. Mackenzie smartly opens with the chase and takes some time to let the action settle down before laying out his themes and giving us the backstory.
We meet the Tanners in the middle of their pulling off their first robbery. And we’re told anything about them except that they’re not particularly experienced bank robbers. Terror, exuberance, affectionate squabbling puts us on the Howards’ side before we know who they are or what their longterm plans are. All we know is that they are in more trouble and immediate danger than the people in the banks they rob.
The teller at the first bank (Dale Dickey), although scared, is annoyed at them as much as frightened. She recognizes at once that they’re amateurs who haven’t come to work prepared. Her practical, no-nonsense reaction is indicative of most of the characters we’re going to meet along the way.
The regular folks of West Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle---a casino there figures at the center of Toby’s scheme to beat the banks with their own money---are like her, practical-minded, common-sensical, stoical, and even good-humored in their determination to make the best of bad situations. But that’s one of their problems. They’re resigned to hard times.
The teller is different in that we can see at once she’s someone who will survive and thrive whatever comes her way and not just because she works for a bank, one of the few prospering businesses around. She’s the type who thinks and plans ahead, who can think and plan ahead because she can imagine a different and better future for herself. (At the exact present moment that means coming out of this robbery alive.) But others can only see more hardship and sorrow ahead of them and their only solace is a kind of retreat into memories of a glorified past or dreams of improbably rosy future brought about not by hard work or careful planning but sheer good luck.
In counterpoint to the bank teller is a waitress at a diner where Toby and Tanner happen to stop in for breakfast on their way to their next hold-up. She’s a single mother who sees her only hope for a better life for herself as attracting the romantic interest of a customer with a good job. She is consequently overtly and too obviously and desperately flirtatious. We can easily guess that far more often than she’s come close to landing a husband and father for her child, she’s essentially prostituted herself for very little money, most likely usually not much more than a too generous tip.
What’s more important, though, is that we see through Kelly Mixon’s heartbreaking performance the waitress’ self-awareness and self-disgust and at the same time her resolve to keep her pride despite her sense that she’s humiliating herself and that her belief that her situation is hopeless.
This mix of courage and shame makes her more typical than the teller of the characters who populate the movie’s West Texas, and that includes Toby.
Toby is forward thinking and he’s a careful planner, but both are new to him and they’re reactions to the sheer dumb luck of oil being found on his mother’s ranch and his mother’s dying when she did---had she lasted a few more days, he might not have had time to put his plan into action before the bank took possession of the ranch. And his careful plan requires him to debase himself. An honest, considerate, and gentle man, he has to turn himself into a thief and point guns at innocent people’s heads. Already ashamed of himself for a lifetime of failure, he’s now disgusted with himself for having become a criminal and a threat and danger to people who’ve never done him any harm.
Jeff Bridges as Ranger Marcus Hamilton is unsurprisingly terrific, and I could go on and on about him and his performance; however, I think it’s best to leave things to Bilge Elbiri who writes about Bridges' remarkable career as one of Hollywood's best leading men of the past two generations in a article at the Village Voice. Chris Pine, though, does a to me gratifyingly excellent job as Toby. I’ve been rooting for him to become a major star since the first movie in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise.
It was fun to see Hell or High Water not too long after Star Trek: Beyond. Abrams reconceived Jim Kirk as the popular jock who makes the class nerds feel good about themselves and inspires them to be heroes. But Pine never lets us lose track of the fact that Kirk is the son of a pair of brilliant scientists and takes after them in important ways. The driving quality of his life is an intelligent curiosity---what he wants most in life is to know. He’s every bit as smart as the nerds who look up to him and is, at heart, a nerd himself. In Star Trek: Beyond, Pine takes his Kirk a step closer to that Kirk, which is to say the Kirk we know and love from the original series. And that Kirk, besides being very smart, is a comic character. Although he has a melancholy streak, he’s essentially a happy man who takes great joy in life and in being himself.
Toby Howard is not a happy man nor does he take much joy in anything, especially not in being himself. He’s not stupid, by any measure, he is in fact quite smart. But he doesn’t really know how to be smart. He’s never had to be. He’s gotten by up until now by going along. He knows objectively that his plan is a smart one but he lacks faith in it because he lacks faith in himself. And more than he’s impressed by his own plan’s brilliance, he’s oppressed and depressed by its necessary criminality. That he has to break the law in order to save his sons' lives is proof to him that as smart as the plan is, it mean he's smart. A smart man wouldn’t have to resort to robbing banks, even if those banks deserve to be robbed.
Pine lets us see Toby’s heartbroken shame and self-doubt as clearly as Kirk’s exuberant and inspiring and good-humored self-confidence.
But as good as Bridges and Pine are, I think it’s Ben Foster who steals the show. While never letting us forget that Tanner has an awful mean streak, that he’s dangerously lacking in self-control, and that as much as he’s driven by loyalty to Toby, he’s driven by a desire to break things, he also never lets us forget that Tanner is large-hearted, brave, and in his way noble. He’s also very smart, in his own way. He doesn’t think before he leaps, but once in the air his mind sharpens and his thinking becomes focused and practical. In other circumstances---in another kind of movie---he’d be a hero. He’s practically the hero of this movie. A tragic hero, however and of course, because unlike all the other characters in Hell or High Water, including Toby and Hamilton, he’s not simply a victim of circumstance. He’s a victim of his own nature. It wouldn’t matter, when and where he found himself, he would eventually find himself on a path to self-destruction.
Hard times are what they are, is one of the messages of Hell or High Water, and to a great degree we’re all at the mercy of economic forces beyond our control, and that’s not just a tragedy it’s a crime, because there are people who can control those forces and who choose to use their control to serve their own narrow interests and destroy other people’s lives in the process.
But along with not having enough of a say in what happens to us, unless like Toby we strike oil in one way or another, that is, we get very lucky, we don’t have a lot of say in who we are either.
Mackenzie doesn’t push it, but it’s key to our understanding what’s going on that we keep in mind that Tanner and Toby are the sons of an abusive father and a cold and withdrawn mother who enabled the abuse.
The problem for other characters in the movie is that they too readily accept what’s happening to them.
Tanner’s heroism may lie in his too readily accepting who he is.
As if you don't have enough to read, here's my review of Star Trek: Beyond: Kirk's Odyssey Begins.
And over at the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri's article The Searcher: On the Enduring Appeal of Jeff Bridges, All-American Loser.
Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Kelly Mixon, Dale Dickey, Buck Howard, and Kevin Rankin. Rated R. Still in theaters.