Today I saw the movie Hell or High Water for the second time. When I left the theater, the server–I think his name was Drew–said, “We’ll see you soon I’m sure” and I smiled and said, “Yes, you will.”
Have you seen the movie Hell or High Water yet? For whatever reason, Alamo Drafthouse doesn’t seem to be pushing it as hard as some of its other offerings. I only found it because it has been break week at AOMA and I was desperate to see a movie and it was the only one available at present that seemed intriguing (mainly because Jeff Bridges is in it and he’s a hometown guy and an all-around wonderful actor). It had to be a movie at the Alamo on South Lamar because that is my favorite place in the world to go for a good, heart-clearing escape and if it’s not an Alamo movie then I probably don’t want to see it. I am particular about my movie theater. What I do is this: I always sit in one of the front rows at the very end near the exit. I get the same lunch: a burger and fries with a side of aioli, one glass of draft beer, water with no ice, and three cookies (two chocolate chip and one double chocolate, and I eat one chocolate chip cookie and take the other two home for later). If I like a movie, I’ll see it two or three or more times because I like to watch movies and I like to think about them. I like to see details. And my lunch is important and so is having a sweet and kind server who understands that watching a movie for me is an event. Drew (if that is in fact his name) got this right away. When I watch a movie I step out of myself and into someone else’s story. I love this. I love the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar with their sweet and kind waitstaff and their burgers and their aioli on the side. This is my favorite place to go for a two or so hour long vacation from life’s stresses and strains. Lunch and a movie and stepping outside of myself for a couple hours is heaven, in my estimation.
Hell or High Water is a plain movie. The story is pretty simple: two guys rob banks because they are poor and pissed off and determined to end the cycle of being underdogs.
**No spoilers ahead**
The visuals in this movie are unremarkable at first glance and the color scheme is pretty unchanging: brown, tan, ivory, blue, and some black. That’s about it. The movie is supposed to be about Texas but the first time I saw it I had the unnerving feeling that it was New Mexico. Sure enough, I read later, it was filmed in New Mexico due to budget constraints. I’m not crazy. It was what I thought it was.
This movie made me think. A lot. The first time I saw it, it seemed like nothing happened and that everything happened. Which is why I had to see it again. On first viewing, though, all I thought about was to wonder what anyone who didn’t know Texas or the interstate between New Mexico and Texas would view in this movie. What would someone who didn’t know this area understand?
Myself, I’m from Santa Barbara, California. I’ve driven through this country though. I drove from Santa Barbara to Bloomington, Indiana to go to graduate school. I drove from Bloomington to New Mexico for my first teaching job during the period when I wrote my doctoral dissertation. I drove from New Mexico to Pennsylvania for a tenure track position. From there I drove to Washington state because I wanted something other than my first tenure track gig so I took a temp job (visiting assistant professor) to tide me over and then to Colorado for another visiting gig and from there to New Mexico to go home and rest and then to Texas and from Texas to Pennsylvania and back again, all for work during my academic career. I know what it’s like to spend hours in the car, alone, in rural areas of this country. This is how I recognized that the movie wasn’t filmed in Texas. And this is how I realized how deeply authentic the people in the movie are. I remember people like this when I’ve driven here and there and everywhere. When I was extremely naive to the ways of long-distance driving, I took one nap once in a truck stop and ever after took my naps in gas stations. I’d always ask the attendant if I could rest for a while in the parking lot because I was too scared to sleep at a truck stop. And the person would say, “Sure, hon, go ahead” with a southern accent, be it an Indiana one or a Texas or a Tennessee cadence. And I’d sleep for a while and then drive onward until night fell, at which point I’d stay in a hotel because I hate driving at night on rural roads. The shining eyes of coyotes on the road side frighten me and I hate them. Animal lover I may be, I get unnerved by the coyote eyes on the roadside at night-time, what can I tell you?
So this movie is the story of two Texas boys, one who has been in prison for bank robbery and other crimes (shooting his abusive father being one of them) and his brother, who is determined to break the chain of poverty so that his own two sons can do better in life. The two brothers need to come up with money to pay their recently-deceased mother’s reverse mortgage and so they rob one Texas Midlands Bank after the next, but in small amounts so that the feds don’t come down on them. A soon to be retired Texas Ranger and his sidekick give chase. Everything is against the two brothers but one is smart and the other has no fucks left to give. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, er–I mean, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham–wisecrack to each other and show up just a minute or two to late in every situation. Nobody wants to help the Rangers, not really, and everyone is poor and disenfranchised, including the Law. At heart, neither brother has any fucks left to give. Not even one.
This movie reminded me of a Tex-New Mex version of two films that I loved in their time: True Romance being one and Jackie Brown being the other. As to Jackie Brown–you remember that one, don’t you? The Quentin Tarantino movie that told the story of the Pam Grier character who is poor, beautiful, and scarred. She lets herself be used as a drug mule in her capacity as an airline stewardess. When the shit hits the fan, she manipulates everyone involved and manages to walk away with all the ill-gotten gains. She’s an underdog who fights back and wins. When I was in my first graduate program and about to sit for my PhD qualifying exams (20 hours of testing that involved three days of six hours per day of written exams and two hours of oral defense one afternoon in front of my committee) I used to listen to one of the songs from the soundtrack (Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack) and cry until I didn’t need to cry any more. Then I’d dry my tears and get to studying. I was going to get across my 110th street no matter what, I promised myself. And sure enough I did. I passed my PhD qualifying exam with distinction and went on to write a beautiful (if I do say so myself) doctoral dissertation.
True Romance is another Quentin Tarantino gem. This one is the story of two misfits–Clarence and Alabama–who end up with–once again–drugs that are ill-gotten and the cause for a lot of shooting. I love this movie for two reasons: one is the famous “Sicilian scene” and the other is when James Gandolfini beats the crap out of Patricia Arquette and she sucks it up and bides her time until she opens up a can of whoop-ass on him and prevails.
I think that a person has to be Sicilian to really and truly understand both scenes. In the first, the Sicilian mafia goes to the young couple’s dad’s trailer to interview Clarence’s dad and find out where the drugs and the fugitives are. Dad is played by Dennis Hopper and the mafia enforcer is played by Christopher Walken. As many times as I’ve read reviews of this scene, it seems like few have truly gotten it. Pops asks Blue Lou’s enforcer if he is Sicilian and Don Vincenzo Coccotti, for his part, answers that yes he is. Dennis Hopper then begins his famous explanation of how and why Sicilians are the n-word. At the conclusion of his soliloquy, he declares that Don Vicenzo is part eggplant. I didn’t entirely catch the meaning of this scene for several years. I’m Sicilian American. I understand the insult. I understood why Don Vicenzo laughed and kissed Dennis Hopper before blowing his head off–I know what it means to call someone an eggplant (it’s the Sicilian equivalent of the n-word). I don’t know when I realized what it really meant but once I knew, I knew.
Dennis Hopper–Clifford–knows that they are going to kill him and he knows that they will torture him until he gives up the information they want before doing so. That is pretty obvious. He’s not going to walk out of that conversation alive. And if you ponder it, it becomes clear enough: if Clifford insults and enrages Don Vicenzo to the point where the enforcer stands up and blows his head off, then Clifford at least bypasses the part where he is tortured and he can go to his grave without giving up his son’s information too. So that is what he does. And that, I think, is an uncommon show of courage if I ever saw one. It’s a case of knowing what’s coming and making some hard choices about the exact details. And when Alabama (Patricia Arquette) charms James Gandolfini and keeps him talking until she can get a handle on the situation at hand is another example of the same. She is like Scheherazade from 1001 Nights but instead of keeping herself alive by telling stories, she keeps herself alive by tolerating blows. When the moment arrives when she can fight back, she does, and she does to an astonishing degree. But getting there has a price and she pays it. I used to watch that fight scene when I was overwhelmed by my doctoral dissertation and tell myself that I had the same ability to dodge and weave as she had, and the same capacity for strategic fighting back against adversary. She was my inspiration in that scene.
I’m not crazy. This is a movie that resonates.
Hell or High Water reminded me of these movies, in a way. The same idea provides the foundation for all three films: people with a hard uphill battle who do not give up no matter how blinding the blows, people who make decisions–if they’re going out, they go on their own terms and with remarkable courage while doing so. And maybe, if they dodge and weave long enough, maybe they come out on top…it happens, you know.
This movies touched me on a personal level. It also made me think of all the people I know who don’t know a lot about Texas or New Mexico. This is a plain on the outside but deeply layered on the inside telling of some history, Hell or High Water is. Its original name, Comancheria (apparently without the accent mark over the i, as it would be correctly spelled in Spanish), speaks volumes; the fact that the movie title had to be changed has something to say about all of this, too.
When I taught at Bucknell University (a visiting position that I loved very much) I used to teach the students about New Mexico and Texas history because many of the students were East Coast kids who maybe would never have the chance to really know this region of the country. One thing I would teach them about was the area described by the Spanish word comanchería. This designation referred to the zone between the colonized areas of New Mexico and the developing areas of Texas. If you look on a map today, you’d see that it’s the upper and middle half of Texas and about a third of New Mexico to the northeast. The Comanche indians, caught between Mexico, Spanish territories, and what was rapidly turning into what is now Texas, did not go quietly. As I watched Hell or High Water and listened to the sharp, clever banter between Texas Rangers played by Jeff Bridges (the Texas white man) and Gil Birmingham (whose character is half Mexican, half Native American), I thought of the way their relationship echoed all the way back into the faraway past. Both are individuals with a lot of shared subtext. One, as such, could not exist without the other.
One way that bonds are forged is, of course, through hardship. Before I came to Texas for the first time, I read a book called The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl written by journalist Timothy Egan. The book tells the story of the Dust Bowl era of this part of the country. One of the best reviews of this book that you might find on Amazon says this: “I didn’t really “get” the Dust Bowl or the Depression until I read this book. We’re all lucky not to have gone through what these folks did. Imagine having to decide which of your children will get to eat dinner. Imagine being forced to slaughter your starving farm animals because there is absolutely nothing left to feed them. Imagine watching your brothers and sisters slowly choke to death on dust. Imagine going to the ATM for some cash to discover that your bank went out of business yesterday, taking all of your savings and investments with it, and there’s nothing you can do to get even a fraction of your money back. Imagine having to abandon your preschoolers to the streets and pray that someone will take them in and feed and cloth them. Imagine holding on to your last quarter for three days before hunger forces you to spend it on a meal, and you have absolutely no idea when or where your next meal is coming from.” The reviewer speaks about his grandparents and what they suffered, and concludes his remarks by saying that, “My Grandma died 20 years ago and my Grandpa in ’99. For so many reasons I wish they were still with me, but more than anything else I’d like to tell them that I understand what they went through and that I’m so very sorry it colored the rest of their lives.”
When I drove to Texas the first time, I had just finished this book and as I drove through a no-man’s land part of the state, dust kicked up in front of me. A huge dust devil. I stopped my car because I didn’t know what else to do, and I waited, thinking about the book I had just completed and wondering if it was a twister. I still don’t know what it was, to be honest, but I’ve never seen anything like it since. It lifted my car slightly as it passed, and dirt forced its way into every crevice of my car and my being, it seemed. I had a tough start in Texas but I stuck it out and grew to love it here and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live anywhere but either New Mexico or Texas, not really. This is where my heart is now. And as I watched and listened to all the actors in this film so believably portray poor rural Texans, I felt like I was on the road driving again, just having read a book about it, seeing it come alive before my eyes, and feeling dazzled and touched and slightly heartbroken but fascinated and charmed by all of it, too.
The colors in the movie are like the colors of the land. Subtle but deeply evocative. At the beginning of the movie, the Rangers are both wearing cream-colored shirts. At the end, the two central characters are both wearing dark brown. There are some obvious stereotypes, like the concealed carry gun-toting Texans who start shooting as soon as they can. But the play of colors and the references to history–book history and personal history–are what make this movie what it is. I think that if you know Texas and New Mexico really well that there is something in this movie for you and I think that if you don’t know this region of the country at all then there is even more in the story for you. It’s subtle. You’ll want to read a book like the one referenced above if you really want to learn, and look into Comanche history a little bit, true. But if you want to learn something valuable about Texas and New Mexico, there is a lot within this movie for you even if you don’t investigate further.
As the face of Two Hearts Wellness, I generally try to stick with healthy and health-related blog topics. Eating a burger and dipping my fries in aioli at the Alamo Drafthouse is not necessarily something I can pass off as healthy eating but the joy that the experience brings me certainly makes going to my favorite theater and watching a movie a worthy endeavor. Still…if you are looking for a health coach or a bodywork therapist or–eventually–a licensed acupuncturist, then this might not be the representative essay to showcase how well I can help you achieve your healthiest life. Even so. I’m still Dr. Bruno as much as I ever was, and of course I believe that thinking about the world around us is valuable, just as valuable as kale and mindful breathing. And I think that readers of this blog who are in far-flung countries (and of them, there are many–my stats page shows readers in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, and all points in between) may never get to visit this part of the country and if they do, would they realize how truly do some of the rough-hewn gems shine here? I don’t know. Maybe. If they watch this movie and pay attention then they most certainly will. No matter where you are, though…if you haven’t seen this movie yet, and you want to experience this magic, then go…or wait, if you have to, but do see it when you can. Watch it more than once. And eat something good while doing so. In so doing, I think, one is living a rich and thought-filled life. And that is healthy, I think.
Don’t you agree?
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