November 8, 2016

hell or high water

Will Schube won’t fuck with a third party voter.

Hell or High Water is many things. It’s a Western, it’s a movie about the crazy things family members will do to defend one another, and it’s a dark comedy about the little battles that keep us moving forward in search of a forever elusive meaning. But perhaps above all, Hell or High Water is another great film in a relatively short line of recession-era dramas. Films angry and brooding, but able to laugh at the absurdity of this conundrum our financial overlords levied upon us. First came Killing Them Softly (Margin Call, too, but that film is more about the creators of the recession rather than those most impacted by it), and two years ago Ramin Bahrani delivered the pitch perfect 99 Homes as David Michôd came through with The Rover. I’m certainly glossing over tons of films that hover around similar themes, but Hell or High Water carries the torch from these movies, introducing a subtle twist on the new generation of post-Bush films—films that focus on poverty both financial and moral.

It’s hard to care and follow the rules when you’ve been told again and again that you’re not worth shit. Each of the four above mentioned films focus around characters who have been screwed out of the system. Instead of quietly fading off into the sunset, they violently rebel by cheating the world they’ve been alienated from—loudly or subtly, either deftly or with a swift kick to the nuts. The immediate pleasures are sometimes more gratifying than the long cons.

The most interesting thing about this list of films is that Killing Them Softly, 99 Homes, The Rover, and Hell or High Water were made by directors with unique perspectives. Andrew Dominick (Killing Them Softly) was born in New Zealand but is Australian based and David Michôd also hails from down under. Ramin Bahrani is an Iranian-American, which is certainly hard as fuck to deal with in 2016. Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie is Scottish (the film was written by Taylor Sheridan, an American). What does it say about the state of our nation that our best (and only, really) recession-era films are being conceived and created by those from particularly fascinating vantage points?

While these non-American  directors can hold a uniquely distant perspective, Bahrain’s place is most fascinating because his is a film about America without touching on the way his world has likely been shifted with the rise of Trump. Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon star in a housing crisis story of desperation and longing, a tale of how far one will go to achieve the American dream. This film, along with Killing Them Softly and The Rover, was made during a time when the threat of Trump tearing down our Democratic system wasn’t looming—which makes Hell or High Water (a decidedly apolitical film, with excellent music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) all the more important.

jeff bridges

Starring Ben Foster and Chris Pine as brothers scheming to save their family farm, Hell or High Water is the sort of disenchanted outsider story that exists in a vacuum pressed up against the promise of American exceptionalism. America is the place where good people who work hard do good things; until good people who work hard and do good things lose the things they had for being good and hard working. Enter Tanner (Foster) and Toby (Pine) Howard, farmers turned thieves due to a bad bank deal and foreclosure issues. Jeff Bridges shows up as a one-case-from-retirement sheriff, and the film’s good versus evil morality-driven narrative isn’t what makes the movie so fascinating. Rather, its Mackenzie and Sheridan’s ability to transform two thieves into the good guys, and the large, looming, undefined face of American governance as evil.

But Hell or High Water succeeds because it doesn’t take a side. It doesn’t look down upon its Southern (likely far-Right) leaning characters; it treats them with sympathy. This sort of disenchantment because the promises made never arrives is understandable. And while Hell or High Water was likely made without any interest in political repercussions, its timeliness rings true. In the film, the character most reluctant to change faces the harshest fate while the others see evolving times less as threats than as an invitation for adaptation.

When Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges come face to face during the film’s finale, with the latter aware of the former’s crimes and the former aware that he’s gotten away, the resolution isn’t one of satisfaction or relief but one of regret at the sacrifices made to achieve the American Dream. We all want all that is promised to us, but at what cost?

chris pine