Jeff Bridges totally understood his ‘Hell or High Water’ role

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Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham play Texas Ranger partners in “Hell or High Water.” | Photo Credit: CBS Films

AUSTIN, Texas — Sitting down in the hot summer sun in the West Texas foothills, Jeff Bridges said he could easily relate to the Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement he plays in “Hell or High Water,” Marcus Hamilton — “but not just because we clearly are about the same age.

“No, what I liked about this movie is that it’s not all so cut and dried. You just never can quite figure out who are the so-called good guys and who are the bad guys. … Plus, on top of all that, I think there’s a bit of good guy and bad guy in almost everyone in this film.”

The movie (opening Friday), written by “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, focuses on how brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) turn to robbing country bank branches in rural West Texas to raise the money needed to prevent the imminent foreclosure on their family ranch by the local bank.

Only weeks from his forced retirement, Bridges’ Hamilton — joined by his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) — sets out to solve this series of bank robberies, operating with his own idiosyncratic approach to crime-fighting.

Bridges smiled when told his character was reminiscent of the rumpled police detective the late Peter Falk portrayed on “Columbo”— a character always underestimated by the crooks he set out to catch.

“He is like that guy,” said the actor. “Marcus is a man who not only is underestimated by other people, but I also think he — like a lot of us — underestimates himself. So often, when we’re put in a tough position and things don’t come together very quickly, we tend to question ourselves and the approach we may be taking to solving a particular issue.”

While it’s clear Bridges’ Marcus is truly fond of his partner, he does come out with some politically incorrect lines — zinging Alberto’s heritage as both a Mexican-American and a man with strong Native American roots.

“Alberto totally gets him,” said Birmingham, who joined Bridges to talk about the film. “He understands Marcus is from a generation of Texans who thinks nothing of calling Mexicans or Indians all kinds of things we now know are despicable ways of addressing people. Yet, underneath it all, Alberto also deeply cares for Marcus and definitely knows the opposite is true. Both men would not hesitate to take a bullet for the other guy.”

Bridges nodded agreement and added that “while working on this film, I was reminded of the old ‘Pogo’ cartoon and a line from that: ‘[We] have met the enemy and he is us!’

“It’s an aspect of being a human being —  constantly running into the darker sides of human nature that includes selfishness and greed. It’s one of the questions we have to ask ourselves: ‘What would we do if we found ourselves in this situation?’ ”

Both Pine and Foster, who play the brothers who believe their only option to save their ranch is to rob easy bank targets, agreed that desperate situations sometimes lead people to do desperate things. That is certainly the case for Pine’s Toby Howard character — basically the “good guy” who teams up with his ex-con brother to pull off the robberies.

“I liked the fact that Taylor’s screenplay was not like some moralizing, pedantic movie morality play,” said Pine. “There’s a lot of gray herefrom start to finish, and it’s not all neatly tied up with a ribbon at the end. I liked that. It clearly shows the morass of what it is to be alive today — and how hard it is for people to figure things out.

“These two men, these brothers are in the corner of a cage, and they are desperately trying to figure out how to survive. Given their circumstances, that’s really tough.”

Foster, sitting next to Pine, agreed. “I think this film graphically shows the difference between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, represented by the faceless banks. I liked the fact the bank employees we see are clearly just acting out roles prescribed for them by their banks’ owners, who live nowhere close to where these branches are located.

“These are issues facing so many of us — and faced so many people back at the height of the recession, when so many people lost their homes, jobs and businesses. That said, I also want to say I like the fact this movie does it without overtly preaching. It’s very entertaining, often funny and there’s great action.

“But it does touch on issues that affect all of us right now.”

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