One of the great pleasures in modern movies is watching Jeff Bridges peer a long, long way over a pair of reading glasses, chew on a private thought for a second or two and then roll the next line of dialogue out of his mouth, like an Atomic Fireball. He's a paradox: a joyously authentic hambone. And he's one of many successful elements of the sentimental, violent, irresistible new crime thriller "Hell or High Water."
If you like, call it a Western. It's a Western old-fashioned enough to risk cliches about honorably lawless men. It's also modern enough to know these folks' time and place cannot last forever, and that the movie itself is already a thing, a very entertaining thing, of the recent past.
"Hell or High Water" harks back to 1970s elegies for the Old West: "The Last Picture Show," "Fat City," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot." In broad terms, progress is the enemy, and fairness is the casualty: The banks and America's financial near-meltdown of 2008 loom large in the story's background. The message, if there is one, is what you might call inoffensively political. Who doesn't think ill of Big Money?
Yet like a lot of good Westerns it plays with all sorts of audiences, right, left and center. If moviegoers find this film, set in West Texas and co-starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a couple of sympathetic bank-robbing brothers on a righteous spree, it may turn into one of those rare uniters, not dividers, of the 2016 movie landscape.
Like "No Country for Old Men" and the remake of "True Grit," both made by Joel and Ethan Coen, this tale of dusty, grubby pursuit and evasion was directed by a conspicuous geographical outsider, the British-born David Mackenzie, now based in Scotland. The script comes from actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who wrote "Sicario." The story takes place in the economically strapped small towns and spacious vistas of Texas and Oklahoma, shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Sheridan's longtime collaborator, in eastern New Mexico.
The brothers, volatile Tanner (Foster) and the more circumspect Toby (Pine), have a plan to hit a series of Midland Bank branches in the early morning hours, and then bury the getaway vehicles, one at a time, on their land back home. Tanner is a career criminal, not long out of prison. Toby is the taciturn one, with an ex-wife and two boys who don't really know their father, and what they've heard isn't good.
There's oil on the family land, waiting to be slurped up. The bank threatening foreclosure doesn't know it yet. Toby and Tanner have little time to get the money needed to pay off a reverse mortgage and the back taxes. (I got a little lost in some of the exposition, but that may say more about me than it says about the script.) "Hell or High Water" charts the progress, the detours and the costs of the brothers' scheme, both to themselves and to the Texas Rangers on their tail. Marcus, three dramatically convenient weeks from retirement, is played by Bridges. His half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner, Alberto, endlessly patronized, in a role one or two key scenes shy of full impact, is played by Gil Birmingham.
Originally titled "Comancheria," the Comanche name for much of the region depicted here, Sheridan's script respects the wiles and street smarts of most every character, major and minor, mostly males. In one exception to that rule, a hilariously foul-tempered waitress delivers a monologue about the perils of not ordering the T-bone in her establishment, and simply for the way this speech deploys the word "trout," as the worst kind of epithet, it's a gem. There are times in "Hell or High Water" when the roiling resentments against the banking industry start sounding a little speech-y in a less effective way. Throughout the story you're well aware of everything Sheridan and director Mackenzie do to keep the brothers in our good graces.
But the actors are terrific. Pine shifts keys very shrewdly for this man of tamped-down regrets, and he does the least conspicuous and the best acting of his career. Foster delineates both sides of his live-wire role, the troublemaker and the brother who knows his screw-ups cause his family no little grief. Like Sheridan's "Sicario" script, "Hell or High Water" has one foot in pulp conventions, and the other in some stimulating, morally tricky contemporary answers to those conventions. What the movie has, above all, is a dramatic line, clean and straight. In its faces, its scenery and its plain satisfactions it makes us feel like we've been somewhere, when we get to the end of that line.
MPAA rating: R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality).
Running time: 1:42