Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 17: The 'Hell or High Water' Diner Scene
Once a day, until Dec. 25, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.
Diners feature in a number of memorable scenes in American film.
Five Easy Pieces. Bagdad Cafe. Heat. When Harry Met Sally. Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction.
And not to put too fine a point on it, Diner.
Let's go ahead and add to that growing list a scene from this summer's smartest, most slyly surprising sleeper, the Western/heist/thriller Hell or High Water.
The film pits two pairs of men against each other: bank-robbing brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) versus Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan make sure to keep things tense and crackling along, but give their characters room to breathe. As a result, the film's relationships don't remain static, they take on different shapes with every scene: rivalry and resentment give way to respect and affection, and then swing back. It's one of many things that make the film so satisfying.
Take the scene in question, in which the two Texas Rangers pause their pursuit of the Howard brothers to stop in to the "World Famous T-Bone Cafe" in Coleman, Texas.
There, they are informed, by a waitress possessed of an exquisitely raw-boned, hardscrabble directness (the scene-stealing Margaret Bowman), that they will be ordering the T-bone steak. Because everyone orders the T-bone steak.
Except one time, a guy from New York tried to order fish. She says this with a caliber of disgust generally reserved for the cockroach that skitters under the sink when you turn on the light.
A moment passes between Hamilton and Parker, a brief pause as they assess the situation. They gamely, respectfully, assent.
The film's climax will bring the two lawmen's companionship to an end — that's something you sense from the very first frame of Hell or High Water — yet this quiet, wryly funny moment waits patiently at its center. There's violence coming, but before it descends, there's just this kickass, irascible waitress, this grubby diner, and in a movie as performatively grizzled and heisty as this one, it feels like something tenderly offered, a small gift.
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