The desert Southwest may be America’s last wilderness—at least metaphorically. The region remains shrouded and unknowable to many, allowing imagination to be substituted for observation. That makes it a ready subject for misinformation. Nobody, of course, leveraged that better than Donald Trump, now our president-elect. It was Trump who, for his voters, conjured up a version of the borderland, as, basically, the Edge of the Earth, substituting lusty, violent, drug-dealing Latinos for dragons.
It is a land, then, ideal for tall tales, for exaggerated storytelling and for plunges into the darkness of the soul, with the area serving the same purpose as the 19th century frontier has done for hundreds of Westerns or Los Angeles has for a stream of noirs. It seems like anything can happen—a place where personal narratives hold sway and men and women of action still have impact. But while there remains some space for myth-making, that coexists with a certain sort of powerlessness that stems from living in small towns dotting large landscapes.
Powerlessness and futility are the themes of three movies set here I watched in succession last week. Hell or High Water is about a pair of bank-robbing brothers, who, in a brilliant twist, are robbing the local branches of the bank that is holding the mortgage on their family’s property in a bid to attain some control over their future. Sicario, which came out a year ago, rejects legal due process and procedural norms in favor of direct and possibly immoral action in a borderless world without rules. No Country for Old Men, the modern classic from the Coen Brothers, is about the triumph of evil as a force unstoppable and unblinking in the face of the efforts of ordinary people.
All three are great and very different films. Hell or High Water, the most entertaining of the three, is drawing a lot of attention for tapping into the vein of working-class and middle-class discontent that was born of the financial crisis of 2008. Its portrait of a junked-up, desolate and hopeless America, savaged by foreclosures, reverse-mortgages, payday loan centers, casinos, and abandoned developments reminds me of a trip I took to southwest Florida right after the downturn, where empty strip-malls were everywhere and towns were paying out of their own pockets to maintain swimming pools in order to keep up the value of houses from which their owners had walked away.
It’s stunning how few filmmakers have tried to dramatize this reality. The movie industry seems to have shared the same blind spots that affected the U.S. political media during Trump’s campaign, an inability to see past their coastal, elite existence. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote both Hell and Sicario, is an exception; He seems to have a feel for the compromises that are forced upon the people who inhabit this region.
Hell and Sicario invite us to reexamine our concepts of heroism and morality. The Howard brothers in HOHW (Ben Foster, Chris Pine) are modern versions of Bonnie and Clyde, stealing small victories against overwhelming odds and an unsympathetic opponent. (While I loved the film, it places a simplistic bullseye on banks as a menace.) In Sicario, a young FBI agent (Emily Blunt, terrific), who would be the Jodie Foster heroine in a different film, is thrown into the deep end of the pool and never quite treads water. Is she a help or an impediment to the greater goal? The film never answers the question. But we are also meant to be skeptical whether the goal itself even matters.
Sicario, in a way, is a fantastical tale that feeds directly into the Trump portrayal of the Southwest as an ungovernable morass where the police are compromised and only the military can be trusted. (See also, Sheriff Joe Arpairo) The FBI is derided as outmoded in the same way the Justice Department was criticized during the Obama administration for being overly focused on trying suspected terrorists in federal court. Only extra-judicial tactics are effective, the movie seems to say, culminating with a slightly surreal, Heart of Darkness-style journey by one slippery agent (Benicio del Toro) into the home of a druglord. Blunt’s idealistic character is sidelined and ultimately derailed, a choice that I found courageous but also likely to disturb other viewers.
Both HORW and Sicario strive for a sort of heightened realism. No Country for Old Men instead traffics in fatalism. What still amazes about the decade-old film is how little agency any protagonist has in the story. You are meant to sympathize with poor Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, also tremendous in Sicario as a devious government agent) even as you suspect his journey will end badly. But you still aren’t prepared for him to die off-screen, perhaps one of the most outrageous moves any director has made in film history. Tommy Lee Jones drifts through the film as its ostensible moral compass but never confronts another character in any meaningful way. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh never is brought to heel. Even a last-act car crash can’t stop him, even as he has killed the most innocent person in the movie.
I like to think Woody Harrelson’s bounty hunter character, perhaps the oddest addition to the Coen ensemble ever, represents America at its cockiest. The idea that you can figure out this place, the borderland, using simply your arrogance as a tool, that there are any simple solutions. Harrelson is cut down almost right after his character is introduced. It’s a reminder that perhaps building a wall won’t solve the problem. Sicario’s central sequence involves a tunnel beneath the border. No Country’s tension largely centers on a legal border station. The economic predicament of the Howard brothers in HOHW has nothing to do with immigrants, despite their proximity to the border.
The forces shaping the lives of the characters in these stories are larger than they know, even as they have a vague sense that they are at their mercy. That feeling, more than anything drove Trump’s victory. Power, leverage, whatever you call it; it’s everything. And these three films are about fleeting attempts to acquire it in a hostile place. No surprise that it all ends badly. – James Oliphant