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 ūüėČ

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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Westerns and The Magnificent Seven (2016) Remake *Spoilers*

I don’t like westerns. My dad has been trying to convince me for years to partake of the genre citing films like The¬†Fastest Gun Alive (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956),¬†Vera Cruz (1954), and, of course,¬†The Magnificent Seven (1960), as some of the greatest movies ever made in an attempt to get me¬†interested in¬†the genre. I’ve watched a few of these since – including My Darling Clementine (1946), Johnny Guitar (1954), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) as part of a film course – and I am sorry to say that they haven’t been successful in changing my impression of the genre. Although I will admit that I enjoy reading academic writing about westerns because the genre is so well-studied, it’s become really easy to talk about the genre’s syntactic and semantic tropes and formulas being adhered to or subverted.

So in preparation for this post (that I’m writing having come fresh from watching¬†The Magnificent Seven (2016)¬†remake which I will henceforth call Seven), I decided to grit my teeth and watch a couple of westerns last night with my dad, namely The Magnificent Seven (1960) (which I will henceforth call¬†Magnificent,¬†not because it is, but because it’s better than¬†Seven), and¬†High Plains Drifter¬†(1973). Just, by the way, the latter¬†is now one of my better liked westerns… right up there with¬†Tombstone¬†(1993) (which I know you’re all judging me for right now…).

Before I begin digging into this remake with just my personal thoughts on it, I want to say that there is a point to why I’m giving you this laundry list of films I’ve watched before. It’s because I think they have all served to colour my impression of this remake in some way, shape or form. So without further ado, here’s my two cents on this remake!

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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Let’s start with the obvious – the climactic gunfight – because what’s a western without a badass gunfight? I guess I both like and dislike that they changed up the climactic gunfight sequence. I liked it because they couldn’t very well do the same thing as the original without being criticised for just rehashing an old classic. And, there was definitely some thoughtfulness to the way they amped up the violence and the scale of the final clash by pitting 7 legit gunmen and a town of passable shooters against a veritable army of hired gunmen owned by the mining company. The choice to open fire on friend and foe alike with the Gatling gun also¬†literalised the indiscriminate violence unscrupulous modern companies sometimes wreck on the little people – this being whether you’re a hired hand or a mark. This makes the film a sign of its times in terms of how it opts to demonise big companies, a key difference from¬†Magnificent,¬†which featured the seven fighting against bandits.

What I didn’t like about this¬†reimagining of the final gunfight is similar to¬†what¬†Brian Lowry, who wrote the CNN film review for the film, described¬†as Seven¬†being a¬†“blown up and lobotomised” version of the original “for an audience weaned on the ‘Fast and Furious’ movies.” Except that I see more similarities between this film and the slew of successful superhero films. Every one of the seven seems to have a special look, feature or signature move and the only acceptable¬†conclusion to the film is a wasteland¬†of collateral damage.

From this observation I wanna raise two other points. Firstly, this idea of boiling a character down to a look like with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio):

Or a feature with Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun):

With these three characters, their motivations to join Chisolm (Denzel Washington) in protecting Rose Creek were a mystery. Now before you say anything, I get that¬†character motivations were equally unclear in the original. However, there was always a sense that they were driven by the essence of their beings as gunmen-for-hire and that if they didn’t take the job, they would take another very much like it. Conclusion?¬†They might as well take the low-paying job to protect a village from bandits and do something good at the same time. This sentiment is a carry over from Akira Kurosawa’s¬†Seven Samurai (1954) which was about the samurai class as a dying breed.

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Unlike in Magnificent, however, it is genuinely unclear why Red Harvest agrees to join them. Or how Jack Horne and Red Harvest can even stand to look at each other given that Horne used to catch, kill and scalp Native Americans for money! The only reason I could come up with for why Jack Horne is a character at all is that he is a trope of the western genre. Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from¬†The Searchers (1956), he is the white man whose hate for the Native American Other has twisted and contorted his moral character to fit the form of the imaginary¬†savage he despises.

(I couldn’t find a video of Edwards scalping Scar but he does… just looking it up.)

I can make this seeming leap in logic because the reference to scalping is a clear reference to the shock and horror audiences experienced when they witnessed Edwards scalp Scar (Henry Brandon) offscreen in the John Ford western classic. But this sort of condensation of a¬†key moment in the history of the development of the western genre into the costuming¬†of a character coupled with a throwaway line about scalping fails to encapsulate the poignancy of its original instance that was thick with meaning. Instead it’s more like a thin distillation of the barest essence of a classic western packaged in some very lazy script-writing.

It is also unclear why Billy follows Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) around or agrees to stay after he leaves. It’s safe to say that the only real reason why an Asian and a Native American (and a black and a Mexican) are on the same team, is so Josh¬†Faraday (Chris Pratt) can point out that they are. While the flip in having the minorities save the white folk instead of seven white men saving a poor agrarian Mexican village is a good idea, this cast of minority misfits needs to be more than a mere cosmetic change. They should have had meaningful moments of characterisation that added depth to their characters instead of throwaway lines of banter that only gave audiences the facsimile¬†of camaraderie between the seven.

While we’re on the issue of characterisation, it’s not like the writers – True Detective¬†(2014-2015) veteran Nic Pizzolato;¬†and the writing chops behind¬†The Equalizer (2014), Richard Wenk – were incapable of doing it properly. There is a way to begin a character arc with a cosmetic feature like a signature move and then have that go on to mean something more. They certainly achieved this with Faraday. Without giving too much away, his sleight of hand magic card tricks that rely on misdirection is a signature move that accrues meaning every time¬†they make an appearance onscreen.

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To tie characterisation back to the second point I wanted to make, I think the¬†film missed a really poignant part of the western¬†with the ending. My feeling this way is probably because¬†the last film I watched before this one was¬†High Plains Drifter, and that was really dark and pessimistic. (Exactly the kind of stuff I relish… I’m a total 70s and 80s film gal when everybody was angry with everything and made¬†really dark and depressing films…)

Anyway, there was a great moment of ambiguity at the end where we get a real sense of Chisolm’s motivation (something we never got of Yul Brynner’s Chris Larabee Adams). In an attempt not to spoil what happens in this one moment of the story that actually made me sit up and pay attention, all I can say is that this is not a good man. His reasons for helping this town were not pure. And both town and fellow gunmen were caught in the cross-hairs of his quest for vengeance. The fact that the entire job was nothing more than a vehicle for vengeance really should have been pushed more because therein lies the essence of the cowboy – the element of untamed wilderness that rides into civilisation to solve their problems with a violent reckoning that¬†only he is capable of, only to be shunned and to leave again because he does not belong and is incapable of being a part of civilised society.

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Remember how I said there was collateral damage? Lots and lots of it? Akin to a superhero movie? ¬†There was so much of it kinda made you wonder if there was anything left of the town to save. To my eyes, there wasn’t. Just like in the ending of High Plains Drifter.¬†Yet, they thanked Chisolm and the surviving gunmen when they left. Why? Why didn’t Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) say anything about Chisolm’s true motivations? Did she know/hear him give voice to them? It would have been a so much more satisfying if the film had indicated that she knew and had an opinion about what she overheard, about how he essentially exploited her town’s vulnerable circumstances to execute a personal vendetta. Instead, all this lovely complexity and ambiguity was swept aside for a long drawn out sequence of townsfolk thanking them, burying the¬†deceased number of the seven like they were heroes with soft music playing in the background.

It was a real missed opportunity to raise the level of storytelling, methinks. And I really felt it in my gut. As in this was the strongest impression I had of the film and I just can’t stop thinking about how I’ve been cheated out of a really good ending because it had such potential…