|Ghost town of Whiteflat, Texas. [A]|
Texan brothers Tanner and Toby Howard, two of the main characters in David Mackenzie's 2016 neo-Western "Hell or High Water", never had much to say for the American Dream. The dilapidated towns with their boarded-up shops, overgrown yards, run-down farms, derelict cars, dishevelled caravans, and ubiquitous pawnshop street signs which the brothers share with scruffy, gun-toting, trigger-happy inhabitants tell much of their backstory.
It took, however, more than that to tip Toby (Chris Pine) over the brink.
Then the fictional Texas Midlands Bank repossessed the Howard ranch. That was the last straw for stoic Toby. The ranch was his only legacy. Fearing to transmit his poverty, like a disease, to his children, Toby enlists ex-con big brother Tanner (Ben Foster) in a desperate attempt to save the ranch and exact wild justice, frontier style, come hell or high water. It was a good choice, for Tanner was as good at his trade as he enjoyed it.
They are on a collision course with Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a veteran Texas Ranger, and his half-Indian deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Hamilton loves his job as much as adrenaline-junkie Tanner loves his, albeit for different reasons. In Hamilton's case it affords him the possibility of chasing bad guys and he's good at that: much as a hunter, he stalks, and ambushes his prey. The chance to inflict his politically incorrect humour on his partner and friend is a bonus. Hamilton, however, is approaching retirement. After a life-time of law enforcement and the loss of his wife, one wonders whether him, like the Howard brothers themselves, has much left to live for or whether he would indeed rather dodge retirement altogether and go in a blaze of glory.
The philosophical and taciturn Parker is largely content playing the sidekick to his more senior and loud-mouthed companion. Parker not only understands his partner's motivations and accepts his teasing as a strange display of affection, but, as a law-enforcement officer, understands the brothers' as well. He's been there although he hasn't quite done that. If someone could sympathise with them, it's him. He, however, is no Tonto to Hamilton's Lone Ranger. When he does speak, Parker sets Hamilton straight: there's little pride in the white men's past and little hope in their future.
The scene for a final and bloody showdown between the lawbreaking brothers and the lawmen is set. Its end is deliberately left open to the viewers' imagination.
Days after "Hell and High Water" was released commercially, Alyssa Rosenberg, writing for The Washington Post ("‘Hell or High Water' Upends the Western to Capture the End of an American Idea", August 15, 2016) notes that "[i]t didn't take smallpox or the introduction of alcohol or military force to decimate families like the Howards".
She is right, but only in part. It truly was a lot harder for white Americans to push Indians off their lands. What she doesn't consider is that, as overwhelming as the odds Indians were facing, they had one thing playing out for them: for them, it was easy to tell who their enemies were. They could shoot at anyone with a different physical appearance, knowing that the chances of hitting the wrong target were minimal.
It's now those white Americans' great-grandchildren's turn to be pushed off. But for them it's much harder to tell who their enemies are. Their enemies are not people of a different race, but "those sons of bitches right there", as half-Indian Parker said pointing at Texas Midlands Bank.
Unlike the enemies of the "injuns", the enemies of the Howards pretend to be their friends. You find them in universities, in think tanks, in both liberal and conservative parties, in banks and factories and supermarkets.
And you find them in the media, too.
Marxists call them capitalists. Sons of bitches, however, works just fine.
[A] "Abandoned school in the ghost town of Whiteflat, Motley County, Texas". Source: Llano Estacado, John E. Stout. USDA-ARS, Lubbock, Texas. I believe those images are in the public domain. If this is not so, please let me know.