Friday, March 17, 2017

Hell or High Water (or On the Moon)

The fine film Hell or High Water certainly is a bank-robbing yarn, and hidden under that a pretty slick scheme that apparently works so well that a detective (Jeff Bridges) can't prove it happened. But the film is also a portrait of the middle of the country, the western edge of the great plains, and although it's set in the southwest (filmed in New Mexico), set in the empty space and dying small town dust of the land above Amarillo, and the Oklahoma panhandle just north of that, the same place that Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole is located, it could happen anywhere there were Trump voters aplenty, including the far western side of Chatham County, NC. Lights of Cheyenne is further north still, the territory of Proulx's other great western book, Close Range, but it's still the same territory, set to the tune of Goodbye Old Paint, one of the sweetest and saddest of the old cowboy songs, where the cowboy even leaves his horse.

They might have put a McMurtry song in the sound track to Hell or High Water somewheres. They've got Ray Wiley Hubbard a couple of times, and Billy Joe Shaver, and Gillian Welsh, and even Townes Van Zant. The movie almost deserves Choctaw Bingo, but that song's just too much good times for the eventual plot turns that make Hell into a tragedy. Like Lance Mannion said in his review, this film should have gotten all the awards. If you want a happy ending to such a story, watch Peckinpah's The Getaway for a nightcap. Probably that's why Peckinpah hated his movie. He didn't believe in happy endings to such stories, and Jim Thompson didn't either. McQueen wanted to make some money, Peckinpah was broke. And damn if the happy ending they cooked up isn't a really happy ending, that leaves me every viewing with a smile and a little hope. It's the opposite of what happens in Hell, start to finish.

There's even an almost perfect parallel to the moment when Ali McGraw gives Slim Pickins more money than he asked for in the first place. In Hell, about mid-way, one of the bank robbers, Joe Pine, gives a waitress a $200 tip. Later on, but not much, Ranger Bridges shows up and tells her the money's evidence. She tells him it pay's her mortgage. It's still evidence. Law's the law.

That's how it is in Hell, all the way. The darkest funniest part is when the town takes out after the robbers in a convoy of pickup trucks. Everyone's armed now. That's what law is, pretty much, in our Republican formerly democratic republic. Get you a gun or three, eventually you may need it. When Ranger Bridges and his sidekick run up on a herd of cattle crossing a road to escape a range fire, Bridges says, "ain't no one to call about the fire out here. It'll burn out when it hits the Pecos." They watch the herd and the cowboys cross over the next rise and disappear. As William Holden says in the greatest of all modern westerns, The Wild Bunch, "these times are changing fast."

Yesterday I was watching the news and saw a real event. It looked like it might have happened out there in the middle somewhere. A cop had chased a guy down, and the guy was sitting on his chest and beating him up. After a while a driver who was stuck in the jam this was causing walked up with a pistol and told the assailant to stop. When he didn't, the civilian shot him, still sitting on the lawman's chest. No doubt Mr. Trump nodded in agreement, as did his pal Mr. LaPierre. The good Samaritan walks past the camera and out of the frame with a dazed, sick look on his face. Bridges best moment of acting in Hell might be when he releases a stifled, anguished cry right after he makes the kill shot on the brother who's murdered his partner from long distance.

I'm hoping that the people who have stolen our government are so stupid that they'll run out of friends. The defunding of Meals on Wheels might be one fulcrum, who knows. Then again, our Secretary of State has now said that we might take some sort of action against North Korea. Watch the skies to the west, after the sun goes down.

Regular folks are going to feel like they inhabit an outpost on the moon before the Trump people finish with us. When the next transport arrives, it'll be to pick up the next load of ore, period. When I flew out to Oregon last March I realized that western Nebraska and the moon look pretty much exactly the same. A cold, desolate beauty. Roads as straight as T-squares. Stars as bright as broken glass at the edge of the blacktop.

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