Hell or High Water
Produced by Film 44 
Directed by David Mackenzie 
Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan 
Distributed by CBS 

Pete’s Dragon
Produced and distributed by 
Walt Disney Productions 
Directed and written by David Lowery 

Hell or High Water has won extravagant praise from mainline film reviewers.  This, I suspect, has to do more with its political didacticism than with its artistry.  Writer Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie disapprove of guns and banks.  On the other hand, they’re besotted with Native Americans, especially Comanches whose forerunners have bred with Mexicans.  (The film’s working title was “Comancheria.”)  All well and good, I say, as long as whites are not demeaned purely based on their pale faces.  And, surprisingly, they’re not in this liberal vision of the ornerier haunts of West Texas.  This is a region populated by folks who have been left in the dust, both figuratively and literally, by a failing economy and an elite who ignore them.  Mackenzie has even put up signposts, lest we miss the message.  Graffiti on the side of a bank says it all: “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.”

Highway billboards reinforce the point: “Fast Cash,” “Debt Relief,” and, even more bluntly, “Loans, Loans, Loans.”

The story begins with a blast.  The Howard brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), charge into a branch bank in a desolate West Texas town, waving guns and shouting excitedly (and rather unnecessarily) that it’s a holdup.  While Tanner proceeds to harry three tellers into loading his bag with only small bills, Toby notices a man in his late 60’s standing in front of another teller’s window.  He prudently asks the gentleman if he is carrying.  The senior answers, “You’re damn right I got a gun on me.”  Toby gently takes the man’s weapon, puts it on the teller’s counter, and leaves it there, saying, “We’re here to rob the bank, not you.”  Seconds later, as the brothers make their getaway, this gun-toting bystander follows them onto the sidewalk and begins wildly firing away.  The geezer displays a disappointing lack of marksmanship.  As he empties his six-shooter, he misses the brothers completely.  This is mildly disappointing.  If a gun owner hasn’t the honor to respect a fellow carrier (especially one who could have taken his gun), he could display better aim.  For their part, the brothers chivalrously don’t shoot back.  This instantly shows them to be the heroes of the story.  They’re on the audience-pleasing side of history.  The bank they’ve robbed is a branch of the fictitious Texas Midland chain that’s threatening to foreclose on their family ranch.  That’s what movie banks always do.  This is mass entertainment, so there’s naturally a proletarian edge at work.  When have you seen banks portrayed as anything other than bloodsucking vampires feasting on ordinary people?  In movies, bankers are always bad, and their mortgagees uniformly good.  You can bank on that.

So you can’t blame the Howards for trying to turn the tables.  Toby, the less volatile of the nitwits, has come up with the perfect plan.  They’ll continue to rob Texas Midland’s branches with Bonnie and Clyde bravura until they have enough money to pay off their dead mother’s mortgage and turn the ranch over to Toby’s sons.  To reduce the risk of harming anyone, they’ll only hit the banks in the morning when few customers are about.  The brothers will take guns to their forays, but with the understanding that they’ll never use them other than to cow employees into compliance.  Further, they’ll only take loose bills from the tellers’ drawers, diminishing the risk of having traceable money on their hands.  (Had I thought of these simple precautions, I would have been sticking up banks as soon as I grew tall enough to see over the dashboard of a stolen getaway car.)

All of this makes sense, doesn’t it?  No one will be hurt.  It never seems to occur to the boys that there are different kinds of hurt.  Their self-help will raise the bank’s insurance rates and security outlay, and that cost, of course, will be passed on to the customers.

Needless to say, the thieves are regarded warmly by average folks for hitting back at their long-standing enemy.  After one holdup, an elderly witness in bib overalls sums up his approval: “They robbed the bank that’s been robbing me for thirty years.”

You can count on audiences not knowing that banks would much rather forego foreclosure.  It’s not a matter of altruism: Foreclosure is not a winning business practice.  What with legal and court fees associated with eviction, unpaid property taxes, and the diminished resale value of an untenanted and therefore uncared-for house, the bank is bound to lose money.  Unless, of course, oil has been discovered on the property.  And what do you know, that’s just what has happened at the Howards’ ranch.  Whoever owns the land will be realizing an estimated $50,000 per month once the drilling begins.  No wonder the brothers are in a snit.  Well, one of them at least.  Their mother left the house to the younger Toby.  The impulse-control-challenged Tanner was serving a prison sentence at the time for his untoward ways, which included shooting his abusive father dead.

Add to this setup an aging Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his Native American partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).  Hamilton is a few days away from retirement, and Parker is of Comanche and Mexican stock.  If you don’t see where this is leading, you haven’t been to the movies in the past 60 years.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan works the clichés with admirable panache, giving them entertaining if not wholly novel twists.  The predictably racist needling Hamilton good-naturedly visits upon Parker has its satisfactions.  Bridges delivers the slights with a laid-back aw-shucks charm that’s long been missing in more circumspect movies.  Parker hits back but does so more quietly.  His mode is exasperated irony.  Hamilton’s joshing racism comes across so casually that it transcends the ism to become something much richer.  It’s at once a reflection of the foolishness of insisting on human differences and, somehow, an acknowledgement of their importance.

In a late scene, Parker states his and the film’s case directly.  Sitting alongside Hamilton outside a deteriorating strip-mall restaurant, in yet another arid town fading into oblivion, Parker looks out at the desert in the near distance and tries to put race, economics, and violence into perspective.  “All this was my ancestors’ land, till these folks took it, and it’s been taken from them.  Except,” he continues, “it ain’t no army doing it.”  Pointing across the street to another bank branch, he says resignedly, “It’s those sons of bitches right there.”  Really?

Sheridan’s and Mackenzie’s film is a good deal better than just about anything else I’ve seen this year.  I’d give it higher marks but for the clamorous hurrahs it’s garnered for brandishing certain bona fides—the antigun line, for instance.  I’m not, in a general way, for carrying concealed pistols.  Were I walking through one of Chicago’s shoot-em-up neighborhoods, however, I’d like to have one under my jacket.  Sheridan and Mackenzie repeatedly portray licensed gun carriers causing mayhem and worse.  I take it they haven’t read John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime.  They’re convinced that weapons escalate violence.  After being confronted by a pistol-packing bank customer in one heist, Tanner becomes dissatisfied with his pistol’s firepower.  He quickly acquires an assault rifle and about 30 clips along with a can of gasoline to be used in extreme circumstances.  As everyone knows, if an assault rifle shows up in an earlier scene, someone’s bound to fire it before the lights come up.  In the interest of suspense, that’s all I’ll say about that.

The film really shines by way of its incidental observations.  The towns are uniformly dry, deteriorating, and desperate.  The people met along the way are besieged by lack and hardship.  When Hamilton and Parker come upon some cattle herders burning a field of brittle brush, the rancher in charge remarks on the hopelessness of his profession.  He doesn’t want his sons to take it up.  The coup de grâce comes when the lawmen encounter an ancient waitress played in hilarious deadpan by Margaret Bowman.  When Hamilton politely asks how she is, she answers flatly, “Hot, and I don’t mean the good kind.”  This no-nonsense seen-it-all gal hasn’t been the good kind of hot in decades, and she’s bitter for the loss.  Why wouldn’t she be?  After all, there’s not much other enjoyment to be had in West Texas today.

There’s no bitterness in Pete’s Dragon.  Nor undue saccharine.  This is a charming film about a boy and, well, his dragon.  I suppose you could say it’s a variation on the standard rite-of-passage tale, but I prefer to keep things simple.

It begins with a Bambi-like echo of mortality.  Three-year-old Pete is in the back seat of his parents’ car as they drive into the Pacific Northwoods.  His mother tells him they’re on an adventure.  As it turns out, it’s a fatal one.  When a deer darts onto the curving highway, the father jams the brakes, loses control, and the car turns over, killing him and his wife.  The boy crawls out of the wreckage and soon finds himself surrounded by ravenous wolves.  Before he becomes their lunch, a huge, green CGI dragon shows up to defend him, beginning a poignant relationship and the validation of a geezer’s memory.  Meachum, played by Robert Redford, now grizzled as well as tousled, has for decades been telling the story of his own encounter with a dragon in the woods some 50 years earlier.  No one believes him, of course—not even himself.  Nevertheless, his annual telling of the tale has become a revered staple in the town’s children’s library.  When Pete brings Meachum into the forest and proves the dragon’s existence, the real adventure begins, and it’s delightfully imagined with the sweetest fire-breathing dragon since Draco, voiced by Sean Connery in Dragonheart.