Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water. Actually, my appreciation of Elle and Hell or High Water is roughly the same. The reason why I’m looking at Hell or High Water first is simply a matter of personal taste. The Wild West/Western aesthetic of Hell or High Water just appeals to me less compared to the Rape-Revenge generic conventions used in Elle. Both films are Oscar nominated films and both deliciously dense and multi-layered. But in my opinion, they’re also not films you’d watch just for fun, which is why I’m saving The Lego Batman Movie for last 😉

Hell or High Water is a David Mackenzie film about two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who commit a series of bank robberies in order to get back at Texas Midlands Bank which is threatening to foreclose on their family farm.

The lasting impression I had of the film is that it is a cross-generational film about the evolving hierarchy of peoples and characters in a Western. I say this because on one hand it is a heist film, but on the other hand, it also has all the trappings of a Western, all the syntactic elements of the genre, if you will.

For instance, the element of the wild is represented by the bank-robbing outlaw brothers. Civilisation is represented by the law in the form of Jeff Bridges’ lawman, Marcus Hamilton, a racial epithet spouting senior on the cusp of retirement who spends most of his dialogue verbally abusing his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Bermingham), a Catholic of Comanche descent. This cop duo unabashedly represent the old guard of Western films. The way Hamilton continuously harangues Parker despite his respect and camaraderie with him speaks to the complicated relationship between the cowboy and the red indian in old Westerns.

Speaking of cowboys, the film also makes it a point to dot the landscape with real cowboys trying to drive cattle and being chased to the edge of the plain by a brush fire. The hard work and the tough living of the lifestyle is captured in Hamilton’s line about how it’s no wonder being a cowboy is a dying trade amongst the younger generation.

Finally, apart from the sweeping shots of a sprawling landscape that somehow manages to look more barren that rich with opportunity for one to venture further west to reinvent oneself, the film also ends with a gun fight. However, this gunfight is not a one-on-one draw. This gunfight uses high-powered rifles with scopes and semi-automatic weapons.

Watching this film, the line that stood out the most to me was when Tanner Howard gets into a confrontation with a Comanche at a poker table:

Bear: I am a Comanche. Do you know what it means? It means ‘Enemy to everyone’.

Tanner Howard: Do you know what that makes me? A Comanche.

This reminded me of something else I’d read recently about how the “redneck” has been rewritten as the “redskin”:

[It] is not just the demonizing mechanism that the city-revenge films have inherited from the western. It is the redskin himself – now rewritten as the redneck. If “redneck” once denoted a real and particular group, it has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the “someone else” held responsible for all manner of American social ills. The great success of the redneck in that capacity suggests that anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic of racial terms have become projected onto a safe target – safe not only because it is (nominally) white, but because it is infinitely displaceable onto someone from the deeper South or the higher mountains or the further desert (one man’s redneck is another man’s neighbour, and so on).

– Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Except that this narrative has changed. In Trump’s American, the blame can no longer be endlessly displaced onto some generic group of people on the fringes of society. The disenfranchised low-income whites in America have been pushed so far out into the margins that they have had nowhere else to go but start an inward trek into the centre of politics by any means necessary, even if it means backing a megalomaniac that’s more likely to dismantle the system than save them because what’s the point of supporting a system that has ousted them to the furthest reaches of society?

And in Hell or High Water, we see how this group of people are humanised and made sympathetic through the Howard brothers. So instead of simply being the wild, and the disruptive element in a civilised landscape, they are the characters you root for. We see this time and time again in how the locals simply can’t be bothered to help the authorities. What more, the law/legal authorities have become ciphers – displaced and men out of time – henchmen of the banks and a corrupt financial system that continues to rob and bankrupt a people.

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