“Hell or High Water” is about two brothers on a crime spree. But David Mackenzie’s film has a lot more on its mind than mere suspense and thrills.
Imagine the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” filtered through the sensibilities of a Bruce Springsteen ballad about sibling tensions and economic alienation, enacted by players who in some instances are giving their best performances ever, and set against a bleak West Texas landscape so carefully rendered you may find yourself trying to spit out the dust.
And although it was filmed a year ago, it serves as an ethnological study of the put-upon people who have embraced the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The film begins with a bank heist. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull on ski masks and barge into a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in an oil spot of a run-down town.
Brother Tanner is clearly enjoying his power over the employees and customers a bit too much. He has to be admonished by his sibling after pistol-whipping a slow-moving worker.
Foster has so often played eye-rolling loonies that you’d expect his ex-con Tanner to be the criminal mastermind behind the unfolding series of bank robberies. Actually it’s the low-key Toby who came up with the plan to steal money from the same bank threatening to foreclose on the family’s run-down ranch.
Estranged from his wife and two teenage sons and way behind on his alimony, Toby hopes to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. At least he’ll be able to leave the family spread to his boys. Heck, there may even be black gold under it.
The brothers have a system, hitting different branches at off hours, then burying the getaway cars out on the back 40. They launder the stolen cash by gambling at an Indian casino up in Oklahoma.
But it’s a given that at some point the hair-trigger Tanner will deviate from the plan and throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy.
Because there’s a relentless lawman on their trail. Jeff Bridges is Marcus, a crusty old Texas Ranger facing an uneasy retirement. Marcus has been catching crooks for so long that he thinks like them; he’s just waiting for one little screwup.
In the meantime he passes the time making politically incorrect observations about the heritage of his long-suffering half-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham).
That’s the plot. But the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who most recently gave us the first-rate drug war saga “Sicario”) is noteworthy for all the other stuff going on just below the surface.
“Hell or High Water” is an unexpectedly touching story of sibling love, economic desperation and class anger.
It’s a revenge fantasy for everyone who feels they’ve been screwed by the system. (In one transcendent bitter/funny moment, Bridges’ lawman looks a bank manager up and down and observes: “Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house!”)
Even the production design makes sociological points. This is a movie you can taste.
And it’s an acting feast.
We expect excellence from Bridges, who in “Crazy Heart,” “True Grit” and other recent roles has cornered the market on old-fart cantankerousness.
But Pine and Foster here kick themselves into a whole new league.
Pine nails the moral ambiguity of a desperate man who talks himself into believing that his crimes are justified. Up to now he’s been a likable but lightweight screen presence (Capt. Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise), but in “Hell or High Water” he plumbs new depths, achieving an unexpected gravity.
And Foster, whose mad-dog act in movie after movie long ago became a cliche, here tones things down, giving the dangerous Tanner a sort of tragic grace.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie, though, is that director Mackenzie, an Englishman with only one other American-made film to his credit, has so perfectly captured the distinctive look and feel of a very specific locale.
There’s hardly a shot in this film that isn’t giving us some essential information about the world Toby and Tanner occupy, from the empty landscape to the sun-weathered faces and the bitter humor that is a requirement for getting through each day.
Yes, this is a crime drama. And a fine one.
But it goes much, much deeper than that.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Hell or High Water’
Rated R. Time: 1:42.