Hell or High Water – Comancheria

I watched Hell or High Water last night. And as Brian said, it’s well worth checking out.

I think it also helped me understand better why so many Americans are voting Trump, and why so many British people voted Brexit. Not to mention why so many Irish people are so pissed off with our own political system and with our politicians that we don’t even have a working government any more.

The film isn’t about politics, but it is a great study in the impacts of endemic and long-term hopelessness, and why people crazy with desperation do desperate things.

Ben Foster (as Tanner Howard) and Chris Pine (as Toby Howard) are both outstanding as the contrasting brothers and bank robbers. Jeff Bridges plays the foil role (the soon to be retired Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton) with roguish humanity and humour, intent on plaguing his long suffering partner, Alberto Parker (who, importantly, is part Mexican, part Comanche), played elegantly by Gil Birmingham.

It has a great script (by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the riveting Sicario), and the dialogue between the two sets of male characters is never wasted, developing characters and driving on the current story and back-stories. The opening is hard, getting us right into it, and the film didn’t flag for a minute for me.

It’s well directed by David Mackenzie, whose mixture of haunting, bleak and expansive vistas, seen from a height, with great dialogue and action scenes makes for balanced viewing. The action is violent and visceral at times but when he needs to slow things down to develop emotional tropes, he does it well. And that landscape! Significantly the closing shot is from as low as you can be, of the land, on the land.

Another stunning score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, interspersing mournful evocative strings and piano with classic country and southern songs. The action scenes are given atmosphere and menace by slow, mounting, ominous motifs. Hell or High Water is big on atmosphere. The beautiful dark opening and closing pieces are called Comancheria, which is fitting, because the feeling of loss being suffered by the Howards and their counterparts is echoed in the film by the older loss of the Comanche Nation, from whom everything was taken by the Howards’ ancestors, so many years before – a fact that isn’t lost on Alberto.

The wheel turns. It reminded me of that vast novel The Son, by Philipp Meyer. This film is about money, power and land, about impotence in the face of destruction – its original title was Comancheria, the name for the vast and long lost historic territory of the Comanche, stretching from New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and into most of northwest Texas.

And of course, this begs the question: The Howards (if they’re not robbing banks) can turn to Trump, but who can the Comanche people turn to? Who will make false promises to them?

Chris Pine has that quiet, rangy blue eyed handsome cowboy thing going on, doing something bad that he doesn’t want to do, but that ‘the man’ forced him into. And that’s fine – it’s hard to avoid the cowboy theme in a locale like this.

Inevitably, his (Toby Howard’s) is the quote of the film, explaining his situation when he finally gets to meet old Marcus.

“I been poor my whole life. My parents and their parents before them. It’s like a disease. Infects everyone you know. But not my boys,” he says.

And, irony of ironies, now many of the Howards of the USA are turning to somebody who never experienced poverty and who never will, and who cares even less for the small guy than the Washington machine does.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend? I don’t think so.

Keep America great. Vote Clinton – and don’t rob banks.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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