Now Playing: Hell or High Water

© CBS Films

It’s been a long summer. I decided to go without air conditioning this summer to, I don’t know, save money? It was a stupid decision. It’s been hot. August has trudged along for years now. I keep thinking back to my last summer without air conditioning, which was in 2012. I was living in Michigan at the time. We tried to shoot off fireworks in a grassy field on the Fourth of July, and the police came––not to tell us to stop, necessarily, but warned us that there hadn’t been rain in six weeks, and if the field caught fire, well, that would be on us. That week,  I took myself to see a double feature of The Amazing Spider-Man and Magic Mike in the same day just to sit in a cool room. Those were good. Well, maybe they were good. At least I felt good.

I can barely remember what movies I’ve seen this summer. They’ve been pretty awful, these past few months, haven’t they? All of these big budget, 3D whatevers blur together. I didn’t see the new Independence Day movie but I bet I could tell you what happened in it. Do I sound old? I’m sorry. I guess maybe I feel a little older than I used to.

After a long and stressful weekend, I went to go see Hell Or High Water by myself, and it absolutely gutted me.

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Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) are brothers living in West Texas. They’re poor; everyone is poor. The money is in oil and truly nothing else. Their mother has just died, medical expenses leaving the family destitute, and the bank is about to take the house. Not a bank—The Bank. Texas Midlands Bank is going to take their house and everything they have left.

Toby knows the bank doesn’t owe him anything and yet—this stings, it hurts. Is this all there is, after his mother is gone? He and his brother and his family—his two boys and ex-wife—left to starve and wither in the middle of Texas because of The Bank? So he hatches a plan. He and Tanner are going to rob Texas Midlands Bank to pay off Texas Midlands Bank. If this sounds stupid, you’re right: it is stupid. It is a stupid idea from the jump. But people do stupid things for all sorts of good reasons, so carry on.

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I have often taken it upon myself to defend a useless movie. I don’t think this is a particularly noble cause, but I will champion a blockbuster, a sequel, a franchise, a Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates (except not really, for that one) because sometimes I think they’re precisely what we need.

In the summer of 2014, I felt heartbreak for the first time. I needed The Fault In Our Stars and I needed Obvious Child.

In the summer of 2015, I felt recklessness. I needed Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike: XXL.

It’s nearly September and I don’t know how I feel this summer about anything at all.

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You can’t, of course, just rob banks and expect people not to notice. (See above: stupid.)

A Texas Ranger, Marcus, (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) take notice of the brothers. Well, they take notice of the banks, and how they’re missing money. Marcus is mere weeks away from his retirement, but why not go out for one last ride? It’s a Western, after all.

It doesn’t take much for the rangers to figure out what’s going on here, but it’s not as if they have help. The folks who have seen the Howard brothers don’t have much to offer in terms of information. They might have sat there. They might have looked like that. They might have worn that shirt, those jeans. Who is really on the side of justice in 2016 when there’s so little of it going around? Does anyone really want to be rooting for a sheriff when we feel like every single one of us is a Robin Hood? When Marcus is forced to confiscate a $200 tip Toby left for a waitress as evidence, she refuses to offer up anything else.

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I’m hard-pressed to say that no one’s favorite movie is a summer release. Sometimes, very excellent movies come out during the summer, and that’s a nice surprise. But the movies that are meant to last and be held up in some regard—be it critical or personal or emotional—those come later in the year when the days are darker and the nights are longer. It’s cooler, then, and there’s time to think about art and meaning.

So what are we owed, exactly, by a summer movie? The 2016 cynic in me screams, “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! If you don’t like something, it’s your own fault.” Cultural criticism is so saturated to a point where every bit of writing explains why something is Actually One Way or Actually Another. Most movies are Actually just movies. That’s a reductive opinion to have, I know. But I don’t need a summer movie to save my life or to fix feminism or to reinvent the comedy or anything else like that. Is it bad that I don’t care whether or not Ghostbusters is progressive, because it also didn’t make me laugh at all?

I just came out to have a nice time in some air conditioning. Why does it feel so difficult this year?

A more thoughtful version of myself, one that has slept in and stayed hydrated, expects a summer movie to be cathartic. It’s a release from thought and worry for 120 minutes. Summer movies are all ethos, but this summer I needed pathos.

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Hell Or High Water is not the first movie to have a crime-committing duo where one is Noble and Good and the other is a Firebrand. This is old; it’s a trope. Toby is in it for his family. He wants his sons to escape the poverty that has plagued his family for decades. Tanner has already gone to jail. Tanner has already done everything. He drives fast because it feels good. He hits someone because it feels good. I don’t know if he’s a sociopath, but he’s dangerous enough for even Toby to feel occasionally unsafe.

The state of movie scenes where two characters say “I love you” to each other is extremely bad, but Hell Or High Water’s is good. Toby and Tanner don’t even make eye contact when they say it. It’s not a declaration; it’s an obligation. They’re not professing love; they’re confessing it. Love is deep and shameful and binds them together, even as they plummet into a bloodbath of stupidity and uselessness.

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I wanted to write about Suicide Squad this month, but what is there to say that everyone hasn’t already, ten times over, two weeks ago, and much funnier than I would? It sucked!

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Maybe it’s about authenticity.

The movies that come out during the summer are movies. They’re not so much honest as they are distractions. They’re not reflective; they’re fake. You say: “that’s special effects, that’s a green screen, that’s acting.” The movies that are films—the ones people write their dissertations on or whatever people do with films—are real. They’re the art. They’re about Us and How We Are and How We Live.

Someone I spoke to didn’t like Hell Or High Water because it felt staged. To him, it was fake and inauthentic. “No one sounds like that,” he told me.

Of course no one sounds like that, I wanted to shout. It wasn’t real. It was a summer movie, no matter how small it felt.