Jeff Bridges Rules Over Evocative "Hell Or High Water"

Like a Waylon Jennings song come to life, Texas thriller “Hell Or High Water” cozies up to life as a dust-covered cowpoke and nonchalantly rolls it over. The exposed underbelly proves an effective conduit for tension and drama for director David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) and writer Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”). Armed with a stable of both movie stars and character actors, the unlikely duo (Mackenzie is a Scotsman, Sheridan a native Texan) transforms a pretty ordinary cops-and-robbers yarn into an intriguing hybrid of heist movie and revenge thriller with a side of some exceptionally meaty character work. It’s all a touch familiar, but it works.

Instead of giving us the lowdown off the bat, the movie comes out of the chute with a bang – two consecutive bank robbery sequences – happily stringing us along on informational bread crumbs until we can piece the story together for ourselves. The gist is this: Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced, down-on-his-luck dad with an especially unlawful plan to save his family’s soon-to-be-foreclosed farm. He and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) begin by relieving a handful of bank branches of their drawer money, setting in motion a plan to kill at least two birds with one stone.

A specter of disbelief hangs heavy over some of Sheridan’s plot machinations. But this is, after all, West Texas, a place where people say things like “I gotta shit like an old goat” and mean it, and rent can be paid in dead coyotes. It’s hard to believe these two would conceive of this particular plan – it’s briefly suggested that their lawyer is complicit in it – but it’s not a stretch to think they’d give it a go. Do they ever.

Unfortunately for them, the law isn’t far behind. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton – call him talker, Texas Ranger – a motor-mouthed, openly bigoted lawman who doesn’t much care for ski-masked youngsters interrupting his morning coffee. Or his impending retirement. The retirement subplot is every bit as tired as Hamilton is, but it works here because 65-year-old Bridges’ presence is inherently a mixture of irritability and weariness. The Oscar-winner sells it just by showing up.

Much of the film’s alleged humor comes from Hamilton’s rapport with and disdain for his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Cunningham). Like in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” the offhand racism is primed to get the wrong kind of laughs. But Sheridan’s screenplay subtly morphs it from outright hostility into something gentler. By act III, the tempestuous bond between Marcus and Alberto has been solidified, retroactively smoothing over some of the rougher dialogue. Cunningham is good and Bridges can’t help but be great, ensuring that the duo is likable through it all.

Bridges’ inimitable screen presence aside, it’s up to the Howard brothers to carry the film. Pine makes for a fine Toby, even if he’s too good-looking to pass muster as a dusty rancher taking his meals in roadside diners. He comes off like a Fashion Week version of a cowboy, just steps removed from a runway or a commercial shoot. But Pine is a natural performer, never less than fully committed to his character’s inner turmoil. Longtime chameleon Foster fares better as Tanner, a short-fused cannon ever at the ready to go off. The character passes on no opportunity to buck any warm feelings toward the brothers on the part of the audience. He a skulking, coiled mess of a man and Foster is happy to oblige.

Incredibly, the film’s sprinkling of supporting players provides just as much joy as its leads. Katy Mixon (“Eastbound & Down”) is great as a feisty waitress and Margaret Bowman (“Bernie”) is wondrous as an even feistier waitress. She nearly walks away with the film in her two minutes of screen time, portraying what could go down as one of the great movie waitresses of all time.

Sheridan’s screenplay and Mackenzie’s direction really come together in two places. Above all, the robbery and getaway scenes are kinetic in ways that lesser filmmakers dream of, transpiring like storyboards brought effortlessly to life. The way the camera careens toward and then away from each of Toby’s getaway cars screams both great screen direction and a director who cares deeply about his writer’s voice.

Then there’s the film’s lone scene between Bridges and Pine. It’s the perfect culmination of the movie’s handful of pulse-quickening sequences of suspense, marrying terrifically substantive writing to two performers given free reign by a director who could’ve easily called for a much more confined reading of the material. The scene teeters on going over the top, but it’s the catharsis the movie demands and Bridge and Pine deliver their dialogue deliciously.

“Hell Or High Water” is only intermittently dazzling, but it brings with it another in a long line of great Jeff Bridges performances and a welcome tweak on genre formula. In crossing potboiler and art film streams, David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan have come up with something distinct, if not groundbreaking. No, leave groundbreaking for next time. If this go-round is any indication, God knows they’ll get there.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 12, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: CBS Films, Lionsgate
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Kevin Rankin, Margaret Bowman
MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality)