Posted on January 15, 2019
TL;DR: This is a great Western, up there with Open Range and Unforgiven. It’s some of the best dialog I’ve experienced since I stopped reading Elmore Leonard.
Spoilers for Hell or High Water follow.
As a film student who spent hours and hours studying John Ford Westerns and who grew up in Texas, I have a feeling for that great American genre that, like West Texas, both repels and attracts me. It’s the loneliness, you see. A Western is about too much space and too few people. It’s about the lack of societal support structures. It’s about how people behave in extremus when they’re on their own.
John Carpenter modeled Assault on Precinct 13 on the works of another great director of Westerns, Howard Hawks. I love Hawks movies, but they’re character studies that could just as easily be P.I. or SciFi films. Only John Ford really got the empty vistas that wordlessly explain how alone the characters are. Out there in the west, he seems to say, there is no character, no affectation, only instinct.
There’s also a sense of nearly Greek doom in a good Western, a feeling that we’re hurtling toward a terrible conclusion and no one in the story is willing to jump off the train before impact. When we simplify it, it boils down to the old “A man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do,” a phrase that has become shorthand for “toxic masculinity is unyielding in its desire to destroy everything around it,” but the true message of the Western is, “A person has to do what they can when they’re on their own.”
Think about Jeremiah Johnson. That’s not a story of a man’s ego driving him to perdition. It’s the story of how loss can isolate and embitter someone, of how the sheer drudgery of revenge can harden into a rut. Both Unforgiven and Open Range are about how your past defines your future if you let it.
Watching the Howard brothers drive through the shit stains of late stage capitalism, I couldn’t help but remember those lonely John Ford vistas. Sure, his were beautiful and these were littered with the rusting, rotten remains of a carpetbagger enterprise, but the result is the same. Wide open spaces, too few people, a sense that society has collapsed and only rumors of the old norms remain.
And that’s exactly what Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger represents: the rumors of the old ways. He could have been an aging Centurion in a post collapse Rome or the last Space Marine on a remote colony. He’s a reminder that order once existed in this desolate place, an enforcer of rules long forgotten, a machine without a purpose on the verge of being deactivated.
I’ve only seen one other movie written by Taylor Sheridan, Wind River, and I was massively unimpressed except for the shootouts which mirror the ones in Hell or High Water in the way they lurch and stumble like real firefights instead of moving with the smooth authority of a Hollywood shoot ’em up. His character building is much better in this movie. Everyone is clearly defined as a person. The dialogue is whip smart. I would put it up against Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler without reservation. And the story is one that rings sad and true as it takes place in the detritus-ridden twilight of unbridled capitalism.
And, hey, just like the 1930s when most of the great Westerns were made, we’re back to hating banks and mistrusting bankers. If you’ve ever read a nasty headline about something awful Wells Fargo or Bank of America has gotten away with lately, this is the movie for you.
And the ending is perfect.