Jeff Bridges is now at the point in his long, polychrome career where he has perfected the art of playing the crusty old coot. It's not as easy as it looks. You can't just hand your audience a whiskery bouquet of squintin' and bellyachin' and call it a day. But Bridges knows just what he's doing, and with the splendid West Texas waltz of a drama, Hell or High Water, British director David Mackenzie has given him the perfect hook on which to hang his hat.
Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Ranger in pursuit of a pair of small-time bank robbers, brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine), who plan to save their family farm by stealing from the underhanded institution that's been weaseling it away from them for years. Toby is a divorced dad who just wants to secure a better life for his kids--he comes off as serene, even with a robber's mask pulled over his face, though we'll come to see that he's really a man held together with worry. Tanner--the mastermind behind the brothers' scheme, as it turns out--is a wily ex-con and something of a loose cannon. In the quasi-comical robbery that opens the movie, he takes umbrage when a feisty bank clerk tells the duo that they're making a stupid move. How dare she call him stupid! From the crude holes in his mask, his eyes gleam with the intensity of an angry insect. Through those two tiny windows, we learn everything about his sense of pride, and about how little he has left to lose.
Hell or High Water is rich with details like that. The plot is clever, and its intricacies are beautifully worked out. (The script is by actor-writer Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario.) Mostly, though, Hell or High Water works because Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens are so alive to the desolate bloom of the West Texas landscape, to the way its heat can seem devil red hot, dust yellow or completely colorless depending on the time of day and the direction of the wind.
Mackenzie isn't a newcomer; he has made a number of marvelous, somewhat underappreciated movies, like the dreamy plague romance (yes, there can be such a thing) Perfect Sense from 2011, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. But Hell or High Water will be his breakthrough. It owes a debt to 1970s bank-robbery classics like Dog Day Afternoon but also carries some DNA threads of existential rubber-meets-road meditations like Vanishing Point. And as those movies did in their day, Hell or High Water captures the free-floating anxieties--and, even more crucially, the near boiling anger and frustration--of our own era. This is a classic story about the little guy who fights back, though its rough justice is tempered by a sense of decency. The bad guys may be charismatic, but not everything they do is excusable. Sometimes their actions are anguishing to watch.
The performances here are uniformly and quietly terrific. Pine is particularly striking--his gait may appear laid-back and cool, but he lets us see the tension in every muscle. And then there's Bridges' Marcus, shaggy and worn but not yet played out. Marcus is on the cusp of retirement and unsure, as we are, how his constant stream of muttering and complaining will translate to life in the rocking chair. This is a man who wears his flaws boldly. He's borderline racist--actually, he probably goes right over the border--in the way he ribs his long-suffering half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). But when one of the brother-robbers' victims, a shy young clerk, apologizes for not knowing the make of their getaway car, Marcus teases helpful information out of her with a kind of craggy tenderness. And when the movie hits a tense turning point--one that's likely to shake you even if you thought you saw it coming--Marcus responds with a strangled, anguished cry that seems to emerge less from his gut than from the earth itself. For Bridges, the old-coot handbook is old hat. He'd rather write new pages, dashing them off one by one with a grunt, a scowl and a flourish.