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Hell or High Water: The Wasteland After

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By Christopher Sharrett.

Anyone of any consciousness who has toured the Southwest knows that it consists of pockets of great wealth surrounded by desert. Structurally, this is not unlike the rest of America, except that in the North and elsewhere we are generally concerned with dying cities: corporate citadels surrounded by dying slums, although in some cases (Detroit) entire cities are abandoned, left by finance capital to perish. What is unique in the Southwest is the presence of colorless, single-story towns that appear to be atavisms, with advertising and decorations (where extant) dating to the 1940s. The wasteland towns of Texas and New Mexico were partially destroyed years before neoliberalism and the crash of 2008; changes in agriculture and the oil and gas industries have made many Southwest towns desolate, to a point that one wonders how people live at what may be subsistence, the only businesses being the occasional café, post office, bank, ancient refinery, ragged ranch, porno and gun shops, and “big box” store on the edge of town.

The chief virtue of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is its keen eye for this culture – this word isn’t appropriate since there seems to be no culture, in the proper sense, in these towns beyond the affectation of cowboy clothing and décor, mainly imposed by the male populations.

Hell or High Water captures the sense of people living on the edge, with billboards advertising easy loans and quick credit, making even uglier the decades-old rural decay, leaving towns strangely blank, dirty, and utterly soulless. But our sympathy is kept at bay; the film also captures redneck society, the obdurate insistence on supporting what is backward and least involved in human solidarity – these people will always vote for Bush and comrades. A mean-mouthed waitress in this film captures the idea handily, as does another, much kindlier waitress who refuses to give up her tips, consisting of stolen money, so desperate is she to feed her daughter.

Wasteland: San Angelo, Texas

Wasteland: San Angelo, Texas

The rest of Hell or High Water is a fairly formulaic robbery-and-chase film, with dabs of comedy, about two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), who rob a string of Texas Midlands branch banks to avenge their dead mother, whose property was taken through the clever new financial trick of a “reverse mortgage.” They are pursued by a verge-of-retirement Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a Native Comanche, who at one point recounts rather casually the awful history of Southwest American conquest, concluding his tale by pointing at a bank, described as the “new” enemy.

The idea of an old lawman showing his still-formidable skills as he prepares to hang up his spurs is tiresome, on display everywhere, more or less recently available in Se7en (1995) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Jeff Bridges makes his character a constant fascination: one can’t help but reflect on an actor once the smart-ass kid (a very intelligent one in films like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot [1974]), now comfortably and thoughtfully portraying the aging process. There was really no need for the True Grit (2010) remake, by less-than-serious filmmakers like the Coen brothers, except for Bridges to show how an actor incarnates someone like Rooster Cogburn without hyperbole, basic to John Wayne’s self-parody. Bridges is a fine performer. But tied to his character here and his partner is the archetypal Lone Ranger and Tonto theme; Alberto is intelligent, but he gives the spotlight to the wiser instincts of Marcus. Alberto’s death brings a quick moment of grief to Marcus, but the old Ranger is soon on his feet, rushing up a steep hill in terrible heat to get his revenge. At work here is the sacrifice of the Indian and his idealization, with the notion from early American melodrama that death is The Right Place to Go for minorities as we weep over them. But Alberto’s idealization has a strange complexion: Marcus is constantly aiming jovial racist zingers at him, all in good fun. In this “post-racial” time we are supposed to understand that no one really has power over another, and we are asked to be broad-minded enough to know that the expression of racism is actually an expression of equality, making for a happier workplace. Alberto responds to Marcus’s racist one-liners, but as a wit he is a gentle second fiddle.

The rampaging brothers fit other archetypes: Tanner is a hard-case psychopath, a jailbird who thinks nothing of walking onto a road with a machine gun against a number of heavily armed men. His kid brother Toby is no shrinking violet, but he is the thinker of the group; he sets up the implausible plan (that works – a major flaw of the film, inadequately thought-through and rewritten). Chris Pine is miscast as Toby; he is too much the fashion model rather than an embittered young Texan whose face and body show at least a few scars of hardscrabble life.

The film reminds us of a few facts of Southwest history, and thereby offers some inflection to the old and new incarnations of the Western genre. In Howard Hawks’ celebrated Rio Bravo (1959), John T. Chance (John Wayne) refuses the help of “well-meaning amateurs” – the townspeople – in fending off the Nathan Burdette gang. Hawks bolsters the idea of male professionalism basic to male genre art, with its notion that society depends not on the people or democratic institutions, but rather a few competent strong men armed. Rio Bravo was, of course, a slap at the Carl Foreman/Fred Zinneman project High Noon (1952), which has Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) trying to get help from a cowardly, degenerate population (I find High Noon a far more engrossing film than Rio Bravo, which seems more a homage to the male body than a siege film, so lacking is it in dramatic tension – I thus put myself on the losing side of endless film studies arguments about these works). Hawks and Wayne hated the idea of the tough male begging for a posse (mobs were basic to 19th-century American “justice”). No one will help Will Kane, which one would think would finally please Hawks/Wayne, with Coop showing off his indefatigable prowess. But Hawks/Wayne got the message: High Noon is a leftist film, one that not only slaps at HUAC and the like, but also the very concept of the American community.

hell-03Hell or High Water shows, off-handedly, the wrongness of Hawks. A crowd of locals, armed to the teeth (all proud NRA members one is sure – the moment shows us something very real indeed), pursue Tanner and Toby. They don’t shoot all that well, but they manage to put a serious hole in the kid brother (one so serious, in fact, that he would be dead – the film uses this dumbbell convention of movieland). A rancher in an all-terrain vehicle says he can dispatch Tanner handily with his long-range rifle, then spread him out like a deer on his hood. Marcus refuses, taking the gun from the local vigilante; the film at this point goes into John Wayne territory, so volatile is Marcus’s drive for revenge for Alberto’s murder. Marcus shows that his age and infirmities don’t stop him from shooting the bad guy in the head from five-hundred yards, another area where the film refuses to add greater dramatic realism rather than depend on convention.

Things work out a bit too well at the end, with a face-off between Marcus and Toby to be continued somewhere after the film ends.

The film is important at the observational level, with its good eye for the drabness of the Southwest (it was actually shot not in Texas but New Mexico – a very poor state) and its vast environs, and the awfulness of life in what a Texan woman once described to me as “the bad country.” The economic dilapidation of much of the region – setting aside education/tourist sites like Austin, Scottsdale, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, with their extravagant influx of New Money that takes these towns out of the Southwest itself – is caught in the film, although it could do a bit more in developing the circumstances of the wretched conditions beyond mention of “the banks.”

A moment for a very parenthetical comment. I am getting mightily sick of having to sit, in multiplex cinemas, through commercials for insurance, autos, junk food, and god knows what else before the main feature. This ordeal would have been unthinkable earlier in my day, when cinema and TV competed for viewers. Today these media have merged, so we pay money for the privilege of being captive to corporate propaganda (of course one could leave, but a refund each time one faces this torture is unlikely – public protest might be needed). My most recent annoyance – it goes far beyond that actually – is an ad featuring a young man driving a car at high speed while reciting Blake’s “The Tyger,” presumably to suggest that both the poem and the car have equally “bad-ass” qualities. Using in such a horrid context one of the Songs of Experience, a work of staggering genius by the greatest poet after Shakespeare, strikes me as close to blasphemy – I say close since the purveyors of this rubbish have not the slightest notion of what they are doing. If they do, they are truly evil.

Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International and is currently writing a monograph about the TV series Breaking Bad.

5 Comments for Hell or High Water: The Wasteland After”

  1. As always, another stimulating review alert to the nuances of the film and wider consequences. Didn’t Warren Oates once play Rooster Cogburn in a TV movie without any of the grotesque eccentricities most actors bring to the role? Yet, rather than go off into a tangent about RIO BRAVO,that I feel you are far too harsh about, I’d point out in a “Yes..but” manner without expecting you to affirm to any “It is so, isn’t it?” counter argument I’d make, that the group do represent the community. Chance realizes that well meaning non-professional amateurs will be killed as happens to Pat Wheeler. This is what happens to the altruistic cowboy who attempts to stop Joe Burdett further beating up Dude in the prologue of the filmBut look at the end when Stumpy and the “comic Mexican” come to his aid at the end showing that the supposedly invulnerable hero is not so powerful afrwe all but needs the help of others for really victorious teamwork. This is a scenario that is played out in so many Hawks films.

    Also, I agree with you about the Coen Bros whose BARTON FINK I looked at last month and found it intolerable. However, also remember how Abraham Polonsky uses “Tyger” in his BODY AND SOUL screenplay that reworks Clifford Odets’ GOLDEN BOY? The difference between then and now needs no further comment.

    Yes, things are getting so bad inside and outside the Academy where I had to listen to a Film professor extol the virtues of GHOSTBUSTERS for a class he taught for our University (Dis) Honors program.as well as stating that some Law students told him they learned more about Law from his class on THE SIMPSONS than in their major! I’m just waiting to hear the reaction from my retired Law professor friend when I next see him.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Tony,
    I’m familiar with the arguments about Rio Bravo. The murder of Wheeler, the comic Mexican and the rest are devices to make the point, even as Chance is “undermined.” But we could go on. I suppose my going off on that digression–which I intended to help illuminate Hell or High Water—reminds us of the importance of Rio Bravo to the genre.
    Indeed, the use of Blake by a thoughtful film is of a much different order than his degradation by commercials. Yes, the use of Ghostbusters only shows how low we have sunk.

  3. Robert K. Lightning

    Fine reading to the film and its politics. In light of the author’s current BREAKING BAD project, his reading of the film’s racial politics seems particularly relevant.

  4. Chris,

    The UK DVD release of Hell or High Water this week brought to mind your review, and upon returning to it, it remains one of the strongest and most interesting readings of the film. Thanks for taking the time to write this piece. I recall Terence Davies telling me, “As it goes out into the world a film has to either survive or die.” Could we not say the same about pieces of film criticism – a fate of survival or death? If we can, then it is fair to say that your review of Hell or High Water is one piece of criticism that has and will survive – at least for those of us who value such thoughtful film criticism. Of course, knowing the feelings you have to your own work, I imagine you still struggle to appreciate or even like the piece? Here’s a quick question – do you think we writers sometimes play a role of disliking or even hating our work for some dramatic reason/purpose, whether conscious or unconscious? Or do we confuse dissatisfaction with such negative emotional responses? I sometimes wonder if we ever speak honestly about our work.

    Best,

    Paul.

  5. Christopher Sharrett

    Paul, we revalue our work–and our lives–as we value and revalue the art we study.

    Robert, yes, the landscape of Breaking Bad, and it’s (self-aware) casual racism, are relevant to its vision.

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