Editor’s note: Spoilers follow.
It took a foreign-born filmmaker to make what is essentially the most American film of 2016. No movie better captures the cultural zeitgeist of the America that exists outside of the so-called bubbles than “Hell or Highwater.”
“Hell or Highwater” is the product of a gruff Scotsman, director David Mackenzie, that breathes new life into what many of us consider flyover territory. In the film, two men with troubled histories make a desperate plan to save their family’s West Texas ranch. Here, what used to be the proud American West is once again the center of the universe.
Fighting Against the Odds for a Little Piece of Hope
West Texas is no longer empty and devoid of life, but full of people. It’s a land where people don’t have to rely on government-subsidized protection, no matter how good that protection might be. Americans there act as if they are fully in control of their own destiny even if a larger force might actually be impeding their personal liberty. These are the types of Americans that we’ve forgotten about, the other 50 percent.
Our two main characters are brothers portrayed by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Pine has never been better than as the soft-spoken Toby Howard. Toby is a man burdened by his family’s history. He gave up on himself a long time ago, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything so his kids might have a better chance than he did.
Playing his ex-con brother Tanner, Foster is the perfect foil, outwardly brash but inwardly having resigned himself to a similar fate as his brother. Time has passed them both by, and no one is pining to give them a second chance. Fate has it that Tanner’s ill-acquired skills coupled with those the brothers gained growing up on a destitute ranch finally have some real value in their current predicament.
The brothers make for the perfect anti-heroes. They’re fighting against the odds for the little piece of hope they have left. Their plan to rob the very same banks owned by the company that is threatening to take away their family’s land is almost poetic. It’d be beautiful if it weren’t so tragic, so real.
Star-Crossed Combatants Duel
Crimes like this are bound to have casualties, so even if the brothers have good reasons for their actions, there are even better reasons why they have to be stopped. Two Texas Rangers are law and order’s answer to our bank-robbing brothers. Jeff Bridges, portraying Officer Marcus Hamilton, like in all of his recent on screen performances is the center of attention every second he’s on screen. Gil Birmingham, as officer Alberto Parker, holds his own as the good cop to Bridges’ bad cop, and their natural chemistry makes the scenes they share a real treat.
Bridges’ character is designed to send a chill up our politically correct spines. He fits his Texas surroundings so well it’s hard to tell whether Officer Hamilton has ever been outside of the western part of the state. His savant-like pursuit of the brothers almost obscures his character flaws, but his unrelenting commitment to ragging on his Comanche partner never allows his behavior to feel like an affectation.
Hamilton is the antithesis of the late, great comedic genius Patrice O’Neal’s statement that “white guilt is destroying America.” Bridges’ character not only literally but also figuratively defends his surroundings. The character is the perfect representation of the other America: he refuses to wear his frailties as a mark of shame. He is unabashedly committed to his way of life, and will stop at nothing to do his job because he knows the greatest threat to freedom is the abuse of freedom.
Amid all the dust and death, no matter what anyone says to the contrary America has always been and still is great. Privilege isn’t only skin-deep, and the notion of silencing voices so the once-silenced can now be heard only places the proverbial hand over a new mouth. It is left up to the viewer to decide whom to root for, and when our two sets of star-crossed combatants finally come to a head the film certainly doesn’t disappoint.
During a year where the borderline revisionist dearth of knowledge about the history and the function of law enforcement officers got so much press, this movie serves as a refreshing dose of reality about how damn difficult it is to be an officer of the law. On top of being an excellent film, “Hell or Highwater” is an all too necessary reminder that the people who choose to serve and protect come from all walks of life, and many of them are heroes.