Some of last year’s best films also showcased why the state’s diverse locale is the ideal setting.
2016 was a banner year for film, as evidenced by many of our critics here at Film School Rejects having a tough time narrowing down their Year-End Best Of lists, as well as the jubilant reactions to many of the well-deserved Oscar wins last month (here’s looking at you, Moonlight!). But one thing that has been overlooked thus far is the role that one great state has played in many of the year’s best films.
That’s right, we’re talking about Texas – it is Texas Week after all – and the Lone Star State’s wide range of cities, infamous history, desolate stretches of highway and abundance of gorgeous, mountainous desert have all made Texas a vital backdrop in film over the years, but especially in 2016. Just as It Follows introduced Detroit’s unfortunate jungle of abandoned homes as the perfect setting for a horror film, the films listed below show us why Texas was one of last year’s best yet unsung supporting characters.
Tom Ford’s second film was a neo-noir thriller based on Tony and Susan, a 1993 novel by Austin Wright. The film kicks off by introducing us to Susan (Amy Adams), a successful artist and art gallery owner living in Los Angeles. Susan receives a novel manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which he has dedicated to her. From here, the film plunges into the fictional world of the novel, which kicks off during a nighttime road trip gone wrong in West Texas. In a dual role, Jake Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, who is taking a road trip with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), when the family is accosted on a desolate stretch of dark highway by three men, who eventually abduct the women and attempt to murder Tony.
Although Nocturnal Animals switches between the fictional and real world, it is the fictional story that is the most compelling as Tony struggles with his grief and teams up with Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to find the men responsible for destroying his family. Within this context, Nocturnal Animals also makes great use of its location, using Texas as a sharp contrast to the polished but hollow real world Susan embodies.
The nighttime abduction is suffocatingly tense in part because of how dark and isolated the road is; Tony and his family are quite literally in the middle of nowhere with no one to hear them cry for help. Tony is able to evade his captors in the desert, stumbling through the cold night and the heat of the morning for miles until he finally is able to find a phone to call for help. But even when help arrives, it comes too late, as Tony finds his family discarded like trash in a ramshackle, rusted out dump. Likewise, the lawlessness of Detective Andes’ vigilante justice feels fueled in part by the environment – bringing suspects to hidden hideaways in the desert to be beaten away from the prying eyes of cameras in the city-based headquarters.
The fictional story’s final shootout feels like a modern western, where the good guys have been muddied by their deeds, blurring the lines between right and wrong. In the end, the Texas desert seems the only winner, as heat, thirst and isolation will eventually finish off what bullets could not.
One of 2016’s best indies was the harrowing and devastating Krisha. Directed by Trey Edward Shults and starring members of his own family, the film follows Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a woman who reconnects with her estranged family in Houston for a Thanksgiving dinner with disastrous consequences. Krisha struggles to connect with her son, Trey (Shults), whom she abandoned with her sister due to her struggles with alcohol. Throughout the film, we see Krisha being confronted with the consequences of her actions, as members of her family whisper their concerns and doubts about both her sobriety and presence behind her back.
But one of the things Krisha does superbly is touch on the very real problem of prescription drug abuse that often takes place behind closed doors. As Krisha struggles to cope with the stress of the day, she retreats into her bathroom, unlocking a small box filled with various pills. Later on, after a disastrous discussion with her son, she steals a bottle of red wine and guzzles it down in the bathroom, breaking her sobriety. Her drunken attempt to cook dinner takes a turn for the worse, as Krisha’s problems are now out in the open for her entire family to deal with.
Krisha turns the safety of the suburbs into something horrifying and sad, the dark family secrets hidden behind closed doors that eventually spill out, causing irreparable damage.
Hell or High Water
Taylor Sheriden’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows divorced father, Toby (Chris Pine), and his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), who commit a series of bank robberies in order to save their family ranch. The brothers have a careful system in place, robbing smaller branches of the Texas Midlands Bank and then bringing the money to a casino in Oklahoma, where it is then converted into a check made out to the same bank, effectively covering their tracks. But when Tanner spontaneously robs a bank while his brother is at a nearby diner, it sets the Texas Rangers on their track.
Also set in West Texas, Hell or High Water effectively uses small town character to depict the struggles of blue-collar workers. When the brothers leave a large tip for their waitress, she refuses to turn it over to the police, despite it being part of what they have just stolen from a bank. As the young woman explains, this tip is enough to cover her rent for a month, which she is struggling to cover. Likewise, Toby has crossed over into a life of crime with his brother simply to keep their mother’s ranch out of foreclosure, due to a reverse mortgage with the Texas Midland Bank. For Toby, this is a way to ensure his children no longer have to struggle the way he has. Throughout the film, we see subtle hints at how the struggles of Main Street have come at the hands of Wall Street.
But while the brothers have enacted their crimes against the bank as a form of frontier justice, they are faced with the wrath of vigilante justice when one of their robberies on a larger branch goes awry. The lunchtime crowd band together to stand up to the brothers, pulling out their own weapons and trying to stop the robbery. When the brothers manage to escape, the townspeople follow in their trucks, until they are called off by the Rangers. The film’s final showdown is a nod to the old vs. new west, with Tanner camped out in the desert, engaging in a shootout with the Rangers and letting Toby, who had children and no criminal record, escape with the money. In the end, Toby is able to save his ranch from foreclosure, setting up a trust for his children with the very bank he has repeatedly robbed. Like the westerns of old, the good guys have won against the odds.
Although it feels a bit morbid, it would be impossible not to include Pablo Larrìn’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onasis (Natalie Portman), which depicts the events which unfolded in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.
Following an unconventional formula, we are given the event in small flashes of memory – the airport greeting the Kennedys and Johnsons received upon arriving in Dallas; Jackie sitting misplaced and dazed in a blood-soaked Chanel suit next to the President’s coffin moments after hysterically scrubbing his blood off of her face. We then see the slow denouement of Camelot as Jackie, no longer a First Lady, must pack her designer dresses, her pearls and her children, and leave the White House. With her husband’s legacy has now been cut short and her own now inextricably tied to tragedy, we see Jackie struggle with the fear of becoming obsolete and having no discernible value to the public.
It’s certainly a testament to history’s disposability of women. But moreover, seeing Jackie’s grief – contained from the public and kept behind closed doors or heavily-gauzed veils – makes finally seeing the fateful shot, which comes close to the end of the film, especially shocking and jarring. The bullet crack is deafening and the reality of Jackie, splattered with blood, holding together her husband’s shattered skull would feel at home in a horror movie if it weren’t real life. It is both horrifying and heartbreaking and, particularly for those born a generation later, the true impact and horror of the darkest day in Dallas history is realized in full.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Last, but certainly not least, comes Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to 1993’s Dazed and Confused, which follows the Southeast Texas Cherokees, a college baseball team in 1980, the weekend before a new semester begins. As the team get acquainted with each other in their new house, they ramble through the weekend going from campus parties to the local disco to a country-western bar to a punk club to meet girls. Sandwiched in between beers and bong hits, the team take the field for baseball practice, hazing the newest members by duct taping them to the outfield and hitting fly balls at them.
There isn’t really a point to Everybody Wants Some!!, instead it’s propelled by likable characters and a guy meeting a girl (which also connects it to Linklater’s Boyhood), with freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) navigating his way through parties to find Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a girl he has met on his first day on campus. Just as Dazed and Confused gave audiences the last day of high school in 1976, Everybody Wants Some!! offers the first weekend of college. But beyond this, it’s also a snapshot of the time period, of Texas college life at the turn of the decade laid over a classic rock soundtrack. As Jake and his teammates finally crawl their way into the classroom on Monday morning, we’re as exhausted as they are.
We never see how the season goes for the team, although we are given the impression that despite the partying, they take baseball as serious as other Texans take Friday Night Lights. We don’t know if Jake and Beverly last the year or what happens to Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) or if McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) gets drafted into the minor leagues. But in a way, none of it matters; instead we’re left with the elated sense of hope Jake leaves his first weekend of college with and a heavy dose of nostalgia for the Texas of Linklater’s youth that populates so many of his best films.