Thursday, June 08, 2017

Hell or High Water

In the foreground of Hell or High Water (2016; dir. David Mackenzie) are two bank robbing brothers and two Texas Rangers who pursue them. In the background is the American Southwest, not only the dramatic scenes we all recognize (buttes and spires and desert) but also small towns and cities on the verge of disappearing. The film shows us devastated landscapes: strip malls, former farm fields full of oil wells or refineries or pump stations, abandoned equipment, rotting houses, empty streets and stores. This contemporary Western drama operates on several levels: that of the robbers and the lawmen who pursue them, but also that of a deeply tragic drama of economic forces, greed, and corporate ambitions that are victimizing people who live in the old Southwest and once earned their living there.

The bank robbing brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard, lived and grew up on a farm that always struggled to survive. Their mother, who died shortly before the start of the film, took out a reverse mortgage in an attempt to save the farm, but after her death the brothers discover that nothing is left: the banks are about to foreclose on the farm and sell it to oil companies that will pump the oil that is below the now abandoned fields around it. Economic exploitation by banks and corporations and entire populations of people are of primary interest. In one scene Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are sitting in front of a store in a town that seems almost abandoned. They are staking out a bank which they believe the robbers will soon hit. Marcus Hamilton likes to make fun of his partner’s Mexican and Comanche ancestry. He makes frequent jokes that are probably intended to show his fondness for Parker but which actually hurt Parker's feelings, though he doesn't say much to show it. Parker and Hamilton are hard-bitten Southwest characters who are close friends but who can never manage to express affection for each other. As they watch the bank, Parker makes a point of telling Hamilton that 150 years in the past all the land they are looking at belonged to "his people," meaning the Comanches. He notes that the ancestors of the people who now live in this town took the land away from the Comanches, and that now the banks have taken their livelihood too. It's an ongoing cycle of exploitation, of economic cannibalism, cultural cannibalism.

Given these themes, there are no clear moral dividing lines in this film. What the bank robbing brothers are doing (robbing banks to acquire enough money to save their farm) is against the law. They understand that. But there's also a reason why they are robbing banks, and it's not greed. It's survival. At least this is the case for the brother named Toby (Chris Pine). He's never been a lawbreaker. He was married, is now divorced, is the father of two sons, and is on uneasy terms with his ex-wife. While his brother Tanner served time in prison for an unspecified crime, Toby spent the last several years before the film’s beginning taking care of his mother before she died of colon cancer. He feels he's done just about everything wrong in his life, and he plans to use the money he acquires from robbing banks to save the farm, which he will deed to his sons as a way of trying to do something good. His brother understands what he wants to do, and because he is his brother, agrees to help him. There's wild recklessness in Tanner: he loves robbing banks. He loves danger. He doesn't care about breaking the law. All of these things make him different from his brother.

Texas Ranger Hamilton is determined to catch these robbers, but he also admires the way they have planned their heists--he sees an intelligent mind at work, and he deduces many facts that turn out to be true. He comes to understand their motives.

Hamilton has much in common with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell of the Coen brothers film No Country for Old Man (2007), based on Cormac McCarthy's novel (2005). He's close to retirement. In fact, he is scheduled for retirement. But he wants a last opportunity to investigate a series of crimes and to catch the perpetrators. It offers excitement for him. It also offers him a last chance to work with his partner Alberto. Hamilton strikes me as the most nuanced and interesting character in the film. But I would also say that Toby Howard's character is rounded, three-dimensional, and nuanced. That there are no moral absolutes apparent in this film, and that all the characters in one way or the other have a conflicted and troubling past, makes for a wonderful ambiguity that becomes the film’s great strength.

Perhaps saying that there are no moral absolutes in this film is incorrect. It's difficult to apply traditional moral standards of right and wrong to the actions of the characters because of what we learn about their backgrounds, because of how events transpire. It is the cultural and economic environment of the Texas Southwest to which we can apply moral absolutes. Injustices are happening. People are losing their land and their heritage. There is a century and a half long tradition of dispossessing people from their land and their farms and their businesses. This legacy of exploitation causes the crimes that occur in this film and leads to the death of four individuals (no spoilers here).

Hell or High Water never becomes morose or too serious. There are numerous moments of humor. There are several minor or secondary characters who are clearly three-dimensional figures: they have a past even though we don't know about it--it's alluded to. We don't know about the struggle of the Howard brother’s mother to save the farm. We don't know about the failed marriage of Toby and his wife Ginny, but the film suggests that past is there. It suggests there is a past, a history, that informs every moment of action.

Hell or High Water ends in ambiguity. The film resolves major aspects of its story, but it leaves some matters hanging. Many find such ambiguity dissatisfying. The irresolution of characters whose past histories are just hinted at, of situations that extend beyond the horizons of this film, are what make Hell or High Water the outstanding experience it is.

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