Those who have driven the vast Lone Star State know there’s more than one West Texas. The tiny town of Lajitas is wedged between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Driving out of there last week with my husband, we took the most direct route to Marfa, which is also in Far West Texas. The road’s full of switchback turns, dizzying climbs and descents through mountains and mesas, but somewhere along the way my phone pinged with a surprising text message. Welcome to Mexico. Calls are 20 cents/minute. . . Actually we weren’t in Mexico. Had we stopped the car, taken a running leap into the Rio Grande and surfaced more than half-way across, we would have been. West Texas, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as close to Mexico, and instead of mountains there are occasional hills or bluffs. Once we headed east along I-20 past Odessa, we were squarely in West Texas territory. It’s a desolate landscape but oddly beautiful, particularly when there aren’t a bunch of ‘nodding donkeys’ (oil pumps) and rusted-out barrels littering the view. The sky seems almost as big as the one further west: it wants to swallow you whole, but first it messes with your head. Returning to Dallas, the movie Hell or High Water beckoned, and we returned to West Texas from the comfort of our theatre seats.
If the 2007 film No Country for Old Men (set in Far West Texas and Mexico) was a masterpiece, then Hell or High Water is a small gem. At only one hour & 42 minutes, it’s a simple character study of West Texas and three people–two bank-robbing brothers and the Texas Ranger determined to catch them. The film opens with a bang–the first robbery–but the plot unfurls slowly, like a fine Texas drawl. It’s funny at times, and there’s more going on than we first suspect.
Native Texan Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay. He grew up on a ranch in West Texas, so he has a real feel for the setting and the people. Oil prices were high when he wrote the script, he’s said in interviews, but everything else was a wreck and the drought was especially horrible–as were the fires. Sheridan had friends who had to sell their entire cattle herds. For him, this film was a chance to give viewers a sense of understanding for the dispossessed. It’s not just the urban areas that are full of poverty and strife.
The brothers target branches of the Texas bank that’s about to foreclose on their family ranch. Not only that, the bank gave their dying-now dead mother a raw deal with a reverse mortgage. It’s pretty easy to root for the two outlaws, even though the ex-con brother is a loose stick of dynamite looking for a light. When he throws a couple of rifles in the trunk of their car, you have a feeling all won’t end well.
Still, it’s almost a feel-good ending compared to what happens in No Country for Old Men. The villains in Hell or High Water do bad things for a good reason, whereas the bad guy in No Country is pure evil, a man with no conscience who’s after stolen drug money.
Apart from the joys of the story, the acting and the setting, I thought the original soundtrack seemed pretty darn perfect.
Two bits of dialogue have followed me around like tumbleweeds:
- Brother Toby is the divorced father, behind on his child support payments, who wants a better life for his two sons: “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”
- The Texas Ranger, played by the wonderful Jeff Bridges, has a deputy partner who’s half-Comanche. During one of their stake-outs, he says: “All this was my ancestors’ land until these folks took it, and now it’s been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. It’s those sons of bitches right there.” He points to the bank.
Even we big city types can relate to that deputy ranger. The 2008 financial crisis doesn’t seem all that long ago.