Those of my generation suckled on Hollywood Westerns saw dozens of them from singing cowboys to cattle rustlers and barroom brawls. From them we learned the language of film, the shorthand of cinema, how a mustache or clean chin could tell us all we needed to know. At least for a while.
When the scene shifted to the big city the genre became film noir with the sheriff as detective or private investigator. The hero was suddenly grizzly with the baggage of a back story. Wide open spaces morphed into back alleys, hangman trees turned into hung juries and slick lawyers.
Vigilante justice may have galloped off in the sunset but it returned at sunrise. American mythology, even in its faded state, still pits the rugged, ragged doomed individual against the forces of institutions be they railroads conglomerates, banks, crooked politicians or government itself. When the little guy is wronged, framed, abused, or neglected he strikes back in ways which may be abhorrent to our sensibility and humanity; he may even rob banks as they have robbed him. And he is likely to elect a demagogue who can turn a grievance into a vote.
Think Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Now think this year’s Hell or High Water in which two brothers, not the sort you’d want your sister to marry, go on a spree of bank hold-ups in wide open Texas pursued by Jeff Bridges and his Indian sidekick in an update of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. This may sound like the sort of movie you’d do your best to ignore but you’d be wrong. It may be the best of the year. It is not only the most class-conscious, anti-bank film I’ve seen in recent memory, adding a new dimension to the genre, but it also peels a layer off the Trump voter in flyover America. The brothers are shooting their way out of a gone culture just as their president-elect has shot from the hip a fusillade of blurts and bluster.
There is a telling scene in a restaurant in which the two Texas Rangers prepare to give their order to an aging waitress. She’s quick to tell them there ain’t no menu. This place only serves one thing. Eat it or leave. Contrast this with the scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970) where Jack Nicholson steals the movie with his antics ordering a chicken salad sandwich, no butter, no mayo, no lettuce, and hold the chicken.
They had choices then and individuality. Today, options have been pinched and the little guy has been swallowed. The towns are a wasteland where the Last Picture Show closed decades ago and the Last Train to Yuma left the station without them. Now their job is on a Slow Boat to China. In this setting of desperation and moral ambiguity they can excuse, even admire, Trump for what ever he gets away with. The only fault is being caught.
So enraged are the dispossessed that they can champion a billionaire
poseur who spouts hollow ways out. His outrageous rhetoric is mistaken for their rage. When Trump boasts about not paying taxes, they cheer. When he gets no endorsements, that counts as another plus. When he is caught with odious behavior toward women that reinforces their manhood. It has become a twisted and shadowy world since Gary Cooper faced his mythical shoot-out at High Noon.
We could spend the next four years gnashing our teeth, mourning the loss of a lifetime of progress or hurling a litany of adjectives at Trump and his constituency or we, the Us-ness, could spend some time getting to the task at hand empathizing or at least connecting with the Them-ness. Even though there are almost three million more of us urban-urbane coastal folks, it is imperative that we get to know those Thems. Whether Trump is seen more nakedly and deposed or he just returns to his golf course and casinos there will be others to speak for those who lost their pension, their home equity or have been otherwise left behind in this globalized world.