Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hell or High Water: a cultural inquiry


Hell or High Water has become one of the surprise hits of 2016 in limited release, one of the movies being touted as everything the year's big blockbusters have gotten completely wrong.  I knew the minute I saw the trailer the first time that I wanted to watch this movie.  I'm extremely glad that Chris Pine has finally managed to find something that has unabashedly pleased everyone.  Outside of Star Trek, he's continued to flounder despite natural talent and charisma, leaving many to wonder whatever happened to him.  Except he's kind of like Tom Hardy (whom he costarred with in This Means War) or Colin Farrell, a go-to talent no matter how big a box office draw he fails to be, or critics magnet.

The problem I now face, however, is how much I want to support something that may be succeeding mostly because it continues a disturbing trend from the turn of the millennium of popular culture unabashedly embracing antiheroes, most of whom are far less redeemable than Pine and Ben Foster's characters in Hell or High Water happen to be (a couple of Merry Men).  I know Americans tend to have sympathy for this type, from Depression-era gangsters to their post-Civil War hellion predecessors, and maybe it's just shocking to see first-hand just how much they really are embraced in the culture.  The thing is, these are fictional characters this time.  Walter White never existed.  The heroes of this era are actively flouting the laws of society, actively trying to reshape it.  I mean, I know Prohibition proved to be a horrible idea, but there's no reason we should hero-worship the folks who kept serving up alcohol anyway, much less their descendants. 

Pine and Foster seem to be a sort of Jesse James gang.  One of my favorite movies is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which kind of takes for granted Jesse's mystique and inherent worth to the culture.  Among everything else it most certainly is hero-worship.  Hell or High Water is also kind of like No Country for Old Men, with Jeff Bridges taking over for Tommy Lee Jones, and Pine and Foster being less hapless than Josh Brolin.  Because Pine and Foster are easier to root for, there will probably be few comparisons between them, but the idea is basically the same.  Both are about moral ambiguity, new-style Westerns, and the shifting landscape of the country.

I love that Pine went minimalist for the movie, which is what he did in Star Trek Beyond, too, although fewer people noticed because of all the action happening around him.  His versatility has always been considerable (just watch him in Smokin' Aces...if you can spot him!), and thanks to his breakthrough in Hell or High Water, other people are noticing him, too.  It only figures that he finally had to play an antihero to prove it, because he's so consistently played heroes over the past few years, it's no wonder he was considered one-note.

Maybe I don't have to worry too much about it.  I mean, I love Batman, too, don't I?  The Dark Knight was basically one long argument for finally seeing him for the lawbreaker he is, and why that may not be as bad a thing as it might seem.  When done right, antiheroes are heroes.  When done wrong, they're not nearly as worth supporting as it can sometimes seem.  But Hell or High Water seems to have done its job in finding the distinction.  It just might be one of the most important movies of the year.