Every once in a while I come across a film that moves me, sometimes for reasons I cannot explain. From the opening shot of Hell or High Water I quickly realized this modern-day Western would be a ‘Man’s Movie’ (white hats and all) and, not surprisingly, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Amazingly enough, this film might be the exception to the rule. While there are female stereotypes (ex-wife, prostitute etc.), instead of being one-dimensional, they have personality and feel like fully fleshed out characters. The shock! This could be due to fantastic casting (I immediately fell in love with Elsie, the female bank teller with attitude), but I’ll give credit where credit is due: to the writer, Taylor Sheridan, for having enough awareness to not simply fill his script with all male characters. There’s a self-awareness in this film, in particular regarding the West Texas world of racism, poverty, and a non-idealized version of modern America – and is everyone packing in Texas? The old man whose blasé admittance that he’s carrying a gun adds a dash of humor, while sneaking social commentary in as well. Cowboys aren’t glorified, there’s no ‘good ‘ole days’ comment; in fact, there’s even a moment when a cowboy bemoans the life, admitting they understand why the younger generation has no desire to follow in their footsteps. This is a world dying, and we’re just watching it burn.
Perhaps the brilliance of this movie is due to the dynamic between actors Ben Foster and Chris Pine, who play brothers Tanner and Toby respectably. I particularly loved the role reversal; Pine, usually given free rein to show off his comedic timing with one-liners and reaction shots, instead plays the understated, minimalist dialogue, thinking role; while Foster’s given the best one-liners. We root for these boys, although it doesn’t hurt that Chris Pine has never looked more desirable; with those well-hung Levi jeans, disheveled hair, and perfect scruff, Toby is perhaps more redeemable because he’s Chris Pine. I went back and forth rooting for and against the cops played by Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham – although that might be due to my own desire to inherently like Jeff Bridges. Their relationship, old white man makes ‘funny’ racist remarks to his part-Mexican/part-Native American partner, is a smart projection of today’s race relations. And bonus points for diverse casting!
Like any good Robin Hood tale, the audience doesn’t want to condone the actions of the law-breakers, but we sure as shit root for them; especially when they’re stealing from ‘rich banks’ to give back to ‘poor families’ who’ve been screwed over. It’s a theme many of us believe in ideally (thanks 2008) but not in practice; so instead we live vicariously through these characters, and watch as the moral of the story becomes muddled during the journey. Does the end justify the means? In film, sure it’s easy to side with the protagonists (there’s a reason they are the leads) but in reality, how many lives are worth your own peace of mind? I hope this film doesn’t slide into anonymity. There is something quiet and understated throughout that held me captive; and when the moments of danger, power, and violence occur, I was riveted in agonizing ways.
Bechdel Test: Free Pass. It doesn’t technically pass the test, but I give it a pass because the females were not relegated to stereotypes.
To See or Not to See: I highly recommend this movie,. I couldn’t stop thinking about it even after the credits rolled.