Originally titled Comacheria, this week’s best stream is a thrilling critique of capitalism, colonialism, and how one feeds into the other. Like many other neo-Westerns—and crime dramas—it’s a fantastic exploration of America’s dirty secrets, laying bare the real cost behind the wave of foreclosures and wealth accumulation that took place after 2008’s financial meltdown. This week, I’m talking about David Mackenzie’s stunning contribution to the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Hell or High Water.
Following two brothers hoping to save their family farm from foreclosure with a string of bank robberies, the film gives a brutal portrait of life in many small Texas towns. Here, we see how local economies and communities have been decimated by banks seizing properties based on unpaid predatory loans. Such unethical business practices paved the way for the housing bubble that eventually created the Great Recession, leaving many tired and hopeless. Even Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played with virtuosity by Jeff Bridges, seems jaded by the system he protects.
Despite his job continuously affecting his personal life, Hamilton decides to hunt calm-and-focused Toby, acted wonderfully by Chris Pine, and Toby’s much-more-erratic brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), whose brimming rage turns into tear-jerking tenderness during the film’s emotional highpoint. Together, these actors humanize the lived experience of so many people, showing the real impact of policies that are often hidden behind piles of statistics and numbers. These aren’t just matters of interest or inflation; these are peoples’ lives. The film goes out of its way to let audiences know that this exploitation is nothing new. In fact, it’s baked into the very DNA of capitalist America.
As visible by its original title, colonialism and resistance is constantly referenced throughout the film, and these themes often crystallize onscreen by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capturing sweeping views of Texas landscapes. Be it the Howard brothers’ desolate farm, the dust-covered hills or rolling fields of green, viewers are really grounded in a sense of place and history. Gil Birmingham’s character, Alberto Parker (Hamilton’s partner), sums it all up when looking at a bank and telling Hamilton “this land belonged to my people once, until they took it, now the banks are taking it from them.” I think this line is a great entryway into the film’s politics and social commentary, showing how colonialism’s legacy is further complicated by capitalism’s need for constant expansion, preying on working-class people to keep the machine going. The Howard brothers, then, become symbols of resistance, showing how the only way to beat the system is to defy it. This is visible when Tanner says “we’re just like the Comanches, little brother, outrunning the law and takin’ what we please.”
It’s a smartly-written movie full of social critique that never seems forced or heavy-handed. Instead of weighing the film down, its themes of colonialism, history, capitalism, friendship and family add a kind of gravity to each scene, pinning viewers to the edge of their seats. Stream Hell or High Water (2016) on Netflix while you can!
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