Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (available to rent on amazon and iTunes) earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations for this month’s Academy Awards, which perplexes me no end because it’s just not that kind of movie. It’s incredibly entertaining, very well shot, but there is nothing in this story you haven’t seen before, whether we’re talking characters or plot. It’s cowboy noir, and while I love noir (and did really enjoy this movie), this iteration changes nothing of the noir formula except putting the action in west Texas.

Jeff Bridges, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, plays Texas Ranger Marcus (not Josh) Hamilton, who’s – wait for it – just a few weeks away from retirement when a string of small-time bank robberies, all of branches of the same bank, crosses his desk and gives him one last ‘big’ case before he heads off to his porch. The robbers, played by Chris Pine (Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner), are a pair of brothers who are robbing banks solely of the small cash in the drawers, and are working up enough money to pay off some specific debt that becomes clear around the midpoint of the film. Pine plays the sensitive brother who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, while Foster is the ex-con loose cannon who seems to enjoy robbing banks for the hell of it. Bridges’ partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is a younger cop of both Mexican and Comanche descent, and bears the brunt of Bridges’ unending stream of bigoted “Injun” humor.

It’s two against two, and you can certainly guess how this is going to end if you’ve seen a few movies in your lifetime. That doesn’t make the trip less enjoyable, especially since the dialogue between the cops is snappy (other than the racist humor, which has a little shock value at the start and quickly overstays its welcome as a device to mask the affection Bridges’ character feels for his partner) and the scenery is stunning, with panoramic shots of the west Texas landscape. I haven’t been to that part of the state, but I’ve been to Arizona and New Mexico, even out of the metro areas, and it has that same feel of desolation between the arid climate and the lack of anything resembling civilization – buildings, paved roads, people, even animals.

The characters, however, are all straight out of Noir Central Casting. Foster plays his character turned up to 11 the entire film, and while he seems to be having a blast, it means the character has no nuance. He’s a psychopath and his only redeeming characteristic is that he loves his brother, although that’s just kind of a stated fact, with nothing resembling an explanation or a background. (He shows incredible empathy for his brother, but thinks nothing of shooting strangers, security guards, cops, and so on.) Bridges does everything he can with his character, although the cop who’s one case away from retirement is about as hackneyed as the hooker with a heart of gold, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to survive this movie and who’s not.

Where Hell or High Water really clicks is the dry humor, much of it around Texas playing a bit to stereotype. When the brothers rob their second bank, there’s an older gentleman at the teller; one brother asks him if he has a gun on him, and the man replies with a combination of shock and indignation, “You’re god-damned right I have a gun.” A young punk at a gas station who can barely hold his pistol correctly gets what’s coming to him for mouthing off to the brothers. Albert gets a few zingers back at Marcus that show him to be the more erudite of the two, despite the way Marcus talks to him as some sort of noble savage.

Was this script just a noir story, though, or was writer Taylor Sheridan trying to make some bigger points about evil banks and a dying way of life on the ranch? If the latter was true, it didn’t work at all for me; it was there but entirely superficial, and if the plot itself was familiar, the Big Bad Corporation aspect is downright bromidic. Sometimes a good guys/bad guys story is just that. Let them shoot it out for themselves and leave the bigger meaning to other films.

(By the way, two “where I have a seen that actor before?” moments for me from Hell or High Water: The brothers’ lawyer is played by Kevin Rankin, who played the priest on Gracepoint, and Toby’s ex-wife is played by Marin Ireland, who briefly played an Islamist terrorist on Homeland.)

I’ve seen five of the nine Best Picture nominees so far, and this would easily be at the bottom for me, and behind a few other movies I’ve seen this year, including Loving, which I saw Saturday and will review this week as well.

The Way West.

My latest post for Insiders covers the Jordan Zimmermann and J.A. Happ signings.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was the second in what would become a series of six novels covering the settlement of what is now the northwestern United States from Montana over to the Pacific, with this novel specifically detailing one wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail. Although Guthrie’s work all seems to deal with that same topic, The Way West comes across much more as a “buddy movie” sort of book, covering the nascent friendship between the two most significant characters as they assume the leadership of the wagon train and deal with various hazards between Missouri and Oregon.

It’s a real page-turner.

Lije (I assume it’s short for Elijah) Evans is the most central of the various characters in the book, the man who eventually becomes the captain of the caravan by virtue of the respect the other men in the group have for his character and his calmness. Yet it’s Dick Summers, who appeared in the preceding book The Big Sky, who makes the journey possible; he’s an experienced hunter and traveler with nearly supernatural capabilities, able to speak with many different Native American tribes, to hunt all manner of game and fish, and even to forecast the weather, a man without whom the group would likely have faltered somewhere east of Wyoming. The mutual admiration society that develops between these two stoic men is the emotional heart of the book, the one constant through the vicissitudes of the group’s months-long trek across dangerous and hostile terrain.

Guthrie infuses The Way West with plenty of subplots, although they lack the intensity or narrative greed of the two connected strands of the bromance between Evans and Summers and the overarching plot of the trip itself. Evans’ teenaged son Brownie becomes infatuated with the one teenaged girl in the caravan, Mercy McBee, the sexually precocious daughter of two rather worthless parents, who herself has gotten into trouble with the married Curtis Mack. (Mercy and Mack’s wife Amanda both show signs of past sexual abuse or trauma, although it’s never mentioned explicitly in the text.) Guthrie gives the Native Americans a little more humanity and intelligence than I’d expect of a writer of his era, especially as they’re seen through Summers’ eyes; while they’re still a bit of the ‘noble savage’ and are frequently depicted as thieves, Guthrie couldn’t be clearer about his disdain for white settlers who viewed them as less than human or took their lives without cause.

It’s definitely a male-centric novel, as the female characters are mostly props, even Lije’s wife Rebecca, who has some strength to her character but gets relatively little screen time, which adds to the book’s dated feel – we’re already going back over 150 years here, and while it’s historically accurate to have the white guys making all of the decisions and doing the hunting and shooting and fighting, the women on such caravans still had to do a tremendous amount of work. Giving a couple of the women more prominent roles than getting pregnant and cooking dinner would have made the novel a much more enduring read.

I also found it a bit light on action – there are hard times, including conflicts with natives and difficult terrain crossings, but they happen quickly, as if Guthrie very clearly did not want to confuse the people-centric narrative with the tension of a shootout with the Sioux or of a wagon collapsing as the group attempts to ford a rough river. Such scenes give way to longer passages of dialogue or describing the as-yet unspoiled country between the western edge of white civilization and the Pacific coast, which I imagine was part of the Pulitzer committee’s logic in choosing The Way West to win the award. The resulting book, however, is one that’s well-written but dry, lacking so many of the dimensions that make more recent winners (like The Orphan Master’s Son) more colorful, gripping experiences.

Next up: I knocked off Dawn Powell’s Come Back to Sorrento over the weekend and have since begun yet another Pulitzer winner, Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House.

Butcher’s Crossing.

My post naming Cubs 3b Kris Bryant the 2014 Prospect of the Year is up for Insiders.

John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing was one of three novels the National Book Award-winner published, just republished earlier this year by the New York Review of Books after the unexpected success of a reissue of his novel Stoner last year. Butcher’s Crossing takes the American western and turns it inside out, reimagining it as Shakespearean tragedy and morality tale rather than hewing to the standard formula of adventure and inevitable conquest.

Will Andrews arrives in the rural trading post town of Butcher’s Crossing direct from Boston, where he’s left Harvard (of course he has … it’s always Harvard, never Dartmouth or Williams or SUNY-Oswego) after three years in search of something different, a less comfortable life than the upper-class upbringing he’s had among salons and scions. The town is little more than a street, a half-dozen buildings, and a regular flow of hunters and trappers, mostly trading in buffalo hides. Andrews hooks up with the grizzled Miller, who knows of an enormous, untapped herd of buffalo that promises a tenfold return on Andrews’ money, with some risk involved due to the distance to get to the herd, which Miller hasn’t actually seen in a decade. The two set off with a driver and a skinner, and they do eventually locate Miller’s quarry, but when Miller becomes so focused on killing off the entire herd, the quartet stay too long and become trapped all winter by a blizzard, forcing them to fend for their lives against hunger, cold, and the madness of isolation.

Williams makes it clear from the start that this is a novel of failure, of the protagonists’ refusal to heed sound advice and clear warnings in search of high and likely unattainable goals. The inability to contemplate that failure, like the invincibility that powers the teenaged mind, dooms Andrews and Miller from the start. Miller is the driver who won’t ask for directions, and leads the team even though Andrews, as the bankroll, should have a say in major decisions. Once he begins the killing, Miller is unable to stop, whether due to bloodlust or greed – or a blend of both where neither can be distinguished – is unclear. Picking the entire herd clean leaves them out in the hinterlands of the Colorado Territory too late in the season, and the blizzard comes quickly, trapping them for six months while taking away much of their stash of hides. They lose some of the remainder on the way back, only to return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that the buffalo-hide bubble has burst, leaving a ghost town behind and the prodigal sons left with nothing to show for their sufferings.

The typical western imagines the old American West as a tableau of vast plains that lead to opportunity, adventure, and the inevitability of manifest destiny – his land and its fruits are ours for the taking, consequences be damned (or fracked). Miller, who has been trying to recruit a money man for this mission for several years, can only see hides as dollars, and appears unconcerned with the consequences for man or beast. Andrews arrives out west with a romantic ideal of the pioneer country in his mind, only to discover after one day on a horse that the physical reality bears no resemblance to the vague pictures he had in his mind. He’s running away from something, but running to something he hardly knows. Charley Hoge, the driver, has already lost one hand to frostbite on a previous hunt gone awry, and now clings equally to his drink and his religion to see him through any crisis. The hired skinner Schneider is the pragmatist, always looking to turn back when the odds seem too long, taking his salary instead of a share of the profits, but even his wiser outlook can’t earn him a better end than those of his mates.

Butcher’s Crossing can be an arduous read because the entire book operates under a shadow. You know none of this is going to end well, not just because the blurb on the back of the book tells you so, but because Williams slathers his brush with a heavy dose of foreshadowing and paints it all over the first part of the book. He takes mercy on the reader by avoiding too much detail of the caravan’s temporary shortage of water and later their miserable time when trapped in the mountains by snow, but this book remains the doom-metal equivalent in the western genre – lugubrious yet menacing, a book designed to trigger your anxiety more than your sense of adventure. There’s a brief passage where the group encounters a small gathering of Native Americans, but rather than giving us the hackneyed kind of interaction – usually outright conflict or a temporary partnership built on mutual distrust – Williams has our heroes pass the group by, with no bullets or arrows fired or words exchanged. The natives appear to have no interest in contact with these white men; perhaps they figured the men were foolish enough to head to their own deaths without any assistance.

Next up: Nairobi Heat, a modern detective novel by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ, the son of the world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novel A Grain of Wheat is among my top 100 novels of all time.

True Grit

The 2010 version of True Grit (iTunes versionicon) earned ten Academy Award nominations – winning none, so I hope it truly is an honor just to be nominated, otherwise the Coen brothers must be really pissed off – which accurately reflects the quality of the acting, the screenplay, and the visuals. It’s also an unusually mainstream film for the Coens, who seem to specialize in cult favorites or films that garner more acclaim from critics than at the box office. I enjoyed the film more for its critical aspects than for the story, and would rank it as above-average but have a hard time pushing myself to call it plus.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney, who subsequently fled into the Indian Territories (now constituting the bulk of Oklahoma) to escape arrest. Mattie, ostensibly in a frontier town to collect her father’s body and belongings, hires the dissolute bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn – over his objections – to catch Chaney, with the condition that she accompany him on the chase. They are joined by the arrogant Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, himself pursuing Chaney for the murder of a state senator and a dog in Texas. (It is unclear which was the greater transgression.)

The Coen brothers were, as far as I can tell having not read the novel, faithful to the original work, or at least far more so than the 1969 adaptation for which John Wayne won an Academy Award. (I haven’t seen that film either.) That decision appears double-edged to me, for while it means they stuck to Mattie’s perspective and gave her character a richness it might have otherwise lacked, it also leads down the figurative and literal slope of coincidences and sentiment in the film’s final fifteen minutes. Everything is a little too clean and perfect. You knew that a snake would come into play. You knew someone would fall into the hole in the ground. The Coen brothers didn’t have to kill off a main character to make the film a little grittier, pun intended, but it seems that their loyalty to Portis’ original work won out.

Two aspects of the film stood out over all others. One, obviously, is Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Mattie and was just 12 years old when True Grit was filmed. Her performance was absolutely critical to the movie’s success – she needs to be tough, firm, adult-like in sensibility yet still maintaining the naïveté of a child of her age; if she’s not believable, nothing that comes after in the film would matter. She must be able to boss around the grizzled, alcoholic Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and yet to be vulnerable when she’s first exposed to violence or finds herself disdained (or worse) by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). And she owns the screen in her negotiation with the dismissive horse-trader that ends with her talking him into a corner and out of his money, a scene where you would easily forget Steinfeld’s age were you not reminded of it within the dialogue. That she accomplished this at her age in her first significant film role is remarkable and justifies the passel of awards she won for her work, as well as the nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (an award won by Melissa Leo for The Fighter).

The other aspect that stood out is the cinematography, which is not something I ordinarily notice in films unless it’s done poorly. But the Coen brothers played True Grit as a classic Western epic, filling the screen with wide-angle views of the countryside, using plot elements like having Mattie on top of a cliff while a battle rages below as an excuse for Roger Deakins to give us an expansive shot of the dusty plateau where the climactic encounter of the book occurs.

(I admit I would have loved to have seen an outtake featuring Rooster Cogburn ordering a White Russian, but maybe that’s just me.)

As for the Best Picture race of last year, I’d still give The King’s Speech the nod over True Grit; both were well-acted, but the two lead performances in The King’s Speech were better than any of the three major performances here. Both films benefited from some contrived drama – the former by altering historical circumstances, the latter through a little coincidence and some silly foreshadowing – but The King’s Speech did so more subtly.

Lonesome Dove.

Winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a broad epic of the American West covering the hardships – many self-inflicted – of settlers and would-be settlers moving into the western plains. The focus is on a pair of former Texas Rangers – the original kind – leading a cattle drive from southern Texas all the way to the unsettled territory of Montana, with each of a half-dozen major characters getting his or her own storyline.

McMurtry’s great skill is in that ability to splinter the story without destroying the narrative greed of the novel. As a new major character is introduced, McMurtry carves out a new plot line, although they all eventually intersect and not always in credible ways. Each of the major characters is deep and complex and given adequate “page time” to give the reader the full sense of the man or woman – particularly Gus McCrae, who would probably make my list of the top 20 protagonists in any novels I’ve read, with a shot at the top 10 – and even the secondary characters were three-dimensional with perhaps the lone exception of the biggest villain, the murdering Native American named Blue Duck.

Lonesome Dove is mammoth – I think it’s the third-longest novel I’ve ever read* – but the variety of storylines and significant quantity of dialogue kept it moving. Where the novel was light, for me, was in what I usually call literary value. When reading most books I can pick up on themes or metaphors without really trying; my wife, an English major in college, always tells me that if you have to work that hard to find them, they’re probably not there at all. Without that, Lonesome Dove felt more like great popular fiction than great literature, which isn’t a bad thing, but it makes it hard for me to rank the book as highly as some of my favorite novels, which had the same evocative prose and intriguing characters as Dove but add more weight from the themes they tackle.

*My best guess at the longest novels I’ve read, going by pages since word counts aren’t available for some of the titles:

1. Don Quixote – originally published as two books, now sold as one; over 1000 pages
2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – over 1000 pages
3. Lonesome Dove – roughly 940 pages
4. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling – 860 pages of tiny print
5. The Pickwick Papers – 840 pages of not-much-larger print
6. Vanity Fair – over 800 pages
7. The Sot-Weed Factor – around 750 pages
8. Anna Karenina – over 700 pages
9. The Woman in White – around 650 pages
10. The Three Musketeers – around 650 pages

Oddly enough, all of those books that I had read before assembling the Klaw 100 are on the list, and all ten will probably be on the next iteration.

Part of why McCrae was my favorite character was his slight obsession with food, not the least his ten-year-old sourdough biscuit starter. One wonders how cowboys lived so long on diets that would make the food Nazis at CSPI have aneurysms, but reading about them certainly put me in the mood for southern breakfasts.

Since I have nothing else intelligent to say on this novel, I’ll just move along and mention that I’m following up one of the longest novels I’ve read with one of the shortest, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

All the Pretty Horses.

In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been.

Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses is an almost straight-up western novel with a slightly hackneyed romance plot layered on top of it. Other than his affinity for the polysyndeton, McCarthy writes very readable prose while still managing to craft the quotable and memorable lines.

The protagonist, John Grady Cole, decides to leave home with his friend, Lacey Rawlins, and head south into Mexico after his parents’ divorce becomes final and he realizes that the ranch on which he grew up is going to be sold. The two boys meet up with a runaway, calling himself Jimmy Blevins, who is a few years younger and both impetuous and immature, standing in as a metaphor for John Grady’s dying (or dead) innocence. Blevins loses his horse in a storm and in the process of stealing it back from the villager who took it in kills two locals and a law officer, after which he himself is killed in what one might loosely call an extralegal proceeding. The brouhaha enmeshes John Grady and Lacey, who had been working on a ranch where John Grady fell in love with the daughter of the hacendado. If this sounds convoluted, it is, with the romance subplot sitting on top of the more traditional western story of outlaws, corruption, and occasional gunplay; the way the romance ends, in predictable fashion, and is never revisited for the last fifty pages of the book gave it the feeling of a second story added after the fact to flesh out the main plot and give it a broader appeal. I doubt that’s actually how it happened – McCarthy doesn’t seem to be an author concerned with commercial success – but there’s a disconnection between the two plot lines that was never satisfactorily resolved.

The core plot line would have made for a short novel, but it’s well-written (of course) and has several amazing passages, particularly John Grady’s quixotic effort to obtain justice for Blevins at the end of the book, encountering first the corrupt captain responsible for Blevins’ death and John Grady’s incarceration, then an amusing episode in front of a judge after he’s accused of theft, and then an encounter with another man named Blevins as John Grady attempts to return Blevins’ horse to its rightful owners. John Grady’s paramour has little interesting to do or say, but her protective aunt – speaker of the quote up top – offers several insightful if slightly verbose thoughts on history, both of humanity and of individuals, and how we are shaped by it and often live in reaction to it.

I’ve got a few other books from my vacation to write up – Greene’s The Quiet American and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – and am now about a third of the way through Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza.

Blood Meridian.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of the most brutally violent books I’ve ever read, but in spite of that, it’s also one of the most beautifully written.

McCarthy’s prose is often compared to Faulkner’s, and while some of that is because they’re both from the South (just like every right-handed pitcher from Stanford is automatically compared to Mike Mussina), there are definite similarities in their styles. There’s a lilting quality to many of McCarthy’s sentences, even when he defies conventional sentence structure. He can be sparse with details when it suits his purpose (the novel’s protagonist is never identified beyond “the kid”), but can also fire off a stream of seemingly minute details that in the end paint a rich picture of a scene, a character, a moment. He never descends into the sheer inscrutability that scares so many readers away from Faulkner, who was an original in many ways but who’ll always be loved and reviled most strongly for his prose.

The story revolves around the aforementioned kid, a fourteen-year-old who runs away from his father (his mother died giving birth to him) to head out west and falls in with a group of mercenaries who are hunting an outlaw named Gómez while also collecting scalps of Apaches, all under the auspices of the Mexican government. And that’s where it gets violent – ruthlessly, sociopathically so. The violence isn’t disturbing because it’s graphic – it is, somewhat – but because it’s so effortless and is achieved on so grand a scale. It is genocide writ small, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that McCarthy based it loosely on the real-life Glanton gang, using Glanton’s top lieutenant, Judge Holden, as the primary villain.

The plot didn’t pick up until I was about halfway through the book; the kid seems to take forever to fall in with Glanton/Holden’s gang, and it’s not until things start to go awry that the plot gets interesting, with the kid and Judge Holden gradually forming the central conflict that defines the last third of the book.

If you’ve got the stomach to get through several scenes of extreme – but, as TIME wrote in its summary of the book, never gratuitous – violence, then I would certainly recommend Blood Meridian to anyone who enjoys Faulkner, morality plays (even ones where the moral lines are blurred), or great American literature. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the scalps start flying.