August 5th, 2020


'Hell or High Water' is the Western we need

John Kass

By John Kass

Published August 23, 2016

'Hell or High Water' is the Western we need

In the great new film "Hell or High Water," one of the first things you see is a wall in a dusty Texas town.

It's a wall of a bank, a dirty white wall baked in the sun. And spray-painted on it in a red the color of dried blood is this:

"3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us."

That's the axle of this film and the spine of it, and I haven't seen a better movie in a long time.

"Hell or High Water" is a lean pulp Western story of two brothers who turn to bank robbery to save the family ranch from the bankers.

Jeff Bridges is as good as you thought he'd be as the wisecracking old Texas Ranger tracking them down in the weeks before he's put out to pasture in retirement.

Chris Pine is excellent and a long way from the Starship Enterprise. He plays a broken man with a dangerous scheme so that his boys won't suffer the disease of being poor. And Ben Foster as Pine's brother cements himself as one of America's great character actors.

I won't put any spoilers in here, except that when it's done you might have a hankering for a medium rare T-bone steak. And just maybe you'll want some old, sassy roadhouse waitress to mock you when you're ordering.

There's also a small role for one of my favorite actresses, Dale Dickey, the award winner from the superb "Winter's Bone." She played the brains behind a savage meth gang in the Ozarks in that Jennifer Lawrence breakout film.

Here, Dickey plays a bank clerk, robbed and told to sit on the floor. She's only on the screen for a bit, but those dry sunken eyes have seen much pleading from hardworking people who never got a bailout from the establishment that runs this country.

Hers is an amazing face, pinched and worn with life behind her, and I can see Dickey in some film I'll make up right here just for her: as a woman of the West during World War I, some picture about sisters trying to survive on a dry scrabble ranch out on the high plains, with their men gone to France and their kids hungry and a relentless wind driving them mad.

And maybe a mountain lion. Or a man.

She'd be great in it.

The thing is, I like Westerns, but too few good ones are made, perhaps because the politics are all wrong.

The Western is a classic American art form about the iconic man alone, the individual against nature and the sins of men. These days our culture's heroes are bureaucrats who take meetings and talk into headsets while ordering up satellite surveillance.

Why do I like Westerns? It's not the horses or the six guns. So I can't say exactly, except perhaps that by definition the Western mocks the moderns who watch them, since the Western is a celebration of the nation we think we used to be.

You have your favorites, and so do I, though I figure "Shane" would be up there on your list, and John Ford's movies with John Wayne, from "The Searchers" to "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And the Marlon Brando pictures "One-Eyed Jacks" and "The Appaloosa," where the quest tale takes a skinny Brando through all the archetypal phases -- from burial to rebirth -- that were set down by Joseph Campbell in "The Hero With A Thousand Faces."

"Lonesome Dove" was a TV series, not a movie, but it was a fine book, and it belongs with the classic Westerns too, like "No Country for Old Men" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales," and "Hombre" and "Unforgiven."

And "Hell or High Water" belongs right up there with them.

Not everyone agrees with me. There was a mincing slapdown of "Hell or High Water" in The New Yorker the other day, so I just knew this picture would be worth the price of a ticket, and it was.

When it was over, we walked out of the theater and all I wanted to do was sit and smoke in quiet for a time. This wasn't a pie-and-talk movie.

After some movies, you have pie and coffee and everybody talks excitedly about this scene or that one, this superhero or that one, all that eye candy and those amazing CGI chariot horses, or the metal encased breasts of some alpha-female warrior, or how Jason Bourne threw that killer left hook and slaughtered the servants of the evil one.

But "Hell or High Water" isn't that kind of picture. It's not a big picture. It's a small picture, really, although the desperation of Americans ignored by the establishment is quite large.

All this is explained by two Texas Rangers sitting outside a cafe, waiting for the bank robbers to show:

How the West was taken from the Native Americans who lived there, and now the grandchildren of the takers are having it taken away from them by bankers fat with federal bailout cash.

It is that graffiti on the wall that begins it all, desperate Americans reduced to spray paint to amplify their voices that are too often ignored.

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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM.