Somewhere in the thick of the outlaw action of Hell or High Water, you can hear a TV newscaster inventorying the bank robbing, the police chases, the shootouts that have shaken a hardscrabble corner of the Lone Star State, likening the events to "a Texas dime-store novel."
But like the best of the old pulp paperbacks, this contemporary western - with Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-heisting brothers, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers on their trail - is more than just satisfying genre fare.
Written by Taylor Sheridan, an actor (Sons of Anarchy)-turned-writer (Sicario), Hell or High Water was one of those famed "Black List" scripts - an unproduced screenplay that industry shamans annually deem to be among the finest making the rounds. It took a few years and a name change (original title: Comancheria), but Sheridan's soulful saga made it to the screen.
And it is fine. Directed by David Mackenzie, a Brit slumming in the cow country of the American Southwest (for budget reasons, the movie was shot in New Mexico; only the locals will ever know), Hell or High Water is at once a tale of desperation in hard times, and a keenly observed character study - or studies.
If Foster's Tanner and Pine's Toby Howard drive the action (and the muscle cars), the former a wild-eyed ex-con, the latter a soft-spoken, divorced dad, it's Bridges' Marcus Hamilton who gives the movie its emotional anchor. A laconic wiseguy of a cop who has his mandatory retirement papers sitting on his desk, he takes his white hat and his partner, Birmingham's Alberto, and heads over to the Texas Midlands Bank branch that has just been hit by two men in ski masks. Marcus has been at this game a long time - he jaws with the manager, with a customer who shot at the fleeing robbers (Texas, it's an "open carry" state), and soon enough he and Alberto, like wily hunters, have staked out their prey.
Marcus relishes riding Alberto, picking at his partner's American Indian (Comanche) ancestry. Alberto bats the jokey slurs right back. In a few talkin'-and-drivin' and talkin'-and-motel-room-campin' exchanges, the deep symmetry of their friendship reveals itself. By the time they've found themselves in a sleepy town, ordering from a crusty old waitress at the "world famous" T-Bone Café, and then taking their spot across the way from the bank where they reckon the Howard boys will show, we've come to know Marcus and Alberto well - the respect and affection disguised as insult and innuendo.
Hell or High Water is punctuated with shocks of violence, and shots of billboards and graffiti announcing a state of dire times and debt (nobody's got any sympathy for the banks being robbed). Foster and Pine (out of his Star Trek Starfleet uniform, credibly ragged and cunning) are both solid - more than solid, in fact. And Birmingham, a veteran actor with a role in the Twilight franchise - he plays Jacob's dad - nails it.
And Bridges? What's there to say about a man who makes it look so easy, and who - in one breathless, pivotal scene - runs through a range of emotion like a wild pony running across the land.
Genius, any way you look at it.
Hell or High Water
**** (Out of four stars)
- Directed by David Mackenzie. With Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Chris Pine, and Gil Birmingham. Distributed by CBS Films.
- Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.
- Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
- Playing at: Area theaters.