In ways large and small, “Hell or High Water” is a movie so beautiful and harsh and elegiac and knowing, the moment it was over was the moment I wanted to see it again.
Consider a relatively low-key scene in which veteran Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are in front of a dusty old small-town diner called the T-Bone, discussing their next move.
In the prior scene, a crusty waitress, played to deadpan perfection by Margaret Bowman, had informed them they were getting the T-bone, and then commanded them to tell her what they were NOT getting in the way of side dishes.
Now, as Marcus and Alberto chat, the world-weary waitress trudges out behind them, continuing on with her hardscrabble life most likely spent entirely in this dying west Texas town.
Such a small but perfect detail.
With electrifying, graceful direction by David Mackenzie (“Starred Up,” “Perfect Sense”); a rich, darkly humorous and deeply insightful screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), and no fewer than four performances as good as anything I’ve seen onscreen this year, “Hell or High Water” is an instant classic modern-day Western, traveling down familiar roads but always, always with a fresh and original spin.
Set in West Texas but actually filmed in New Mexico, “Hell or High Water” is brimming with images of small towns teetering on collapse. Shuttered businesses dominate the landscape. Graffiti scribblings refer to someone doing three tours in Iraq but getting no help at home. Aging cattlemen acknowledge the anachronistic nature of their life’s work.
We begin with a bank robbery. Two armed men in ski masks storm into a branch of the Texas Midlands bank and make a cash grab of a few thousand bucks. (No packets rigged with exploding dye, no large bills.) They get away with it, but it’s pretty clear these two are new at the game.
The bank robbers are brothers. Chris Pine (startlingly handsome on a Brad Pitt level but also a very good actor on a Brad Pitt level) is Toby, a divorced father of two struggling to keep the family ranch afloat. Ben Foster (one of the best character actors on the planet) is Tanner, a loose cannon a year out of prison whose every action tells us he’s probably going to be back in prison sooner rather than later, and he doesn’t really give a damn if that happens.
Jeff Bridges as the aforementioned Texas Ranger Marcus is so perfectly cast for the role you wonder if he brought his boots and hat from previous movies to the set. A widower just days away from a retirement he dreads, Marcus leaps — well, saunters — at the chance to track down the robbers who have been hitting a string of Texas Midland branches.
Marcus’ partner Alberto (Birmingham) is half-Comanche, half-Mexican. It’s almost literally a Cowboy-and-Indian duo. Marcus never misses an opportunity to needle Alberto with politically incorrect jibes. Alberto professes to resent the hell out of Marcus, but it’s clear there’s an abiding friendship and deep respect between the two.
This movie could have been set in 1875, what with the outlaw brothers robbin’ banks for a certain cause, and the veteran lawmen in pursuit, and the ever-present Gun Culture among civilians as well as the men wearing badges — and the feeling we have throughout this movie that before it’s over, guns will be drawn and shots will be fired, and it’s not going to end well for everyone.
Despite Tanner’s hotheaded screw-ups, the brothers are both pretty smart, and they have a fairly well conceived master plan that includes burying a series of getaway cars with a bulldozer deep on their own property, and laundering the cash at Oklahoma casinos.
Director Mackenzie and screenwriter Sheridan make every scene and character memorable, whether it’s a bank robbery scene where just about every customer on the premises is a big-time proponent of Conceal and Carry; a waitress (Katy Mixon) who refuses to surrender $200 in tip money she received from Toby as evidence unless the Rangers get a warrant because she’s going to use it to pay half her mortgage, or a poker scene in which a hulking Comanche looms over Tanner and tries to intimidate him, only to realize you can’t intimidate a true sociopath.
This film serves as a commentary on our times without ever getting political or preachy about our times. The NRA crowd could point to certain scenes and say, “See? THAT’S what I’m talking about!” The anti-gun crowd could point to those same scenes and say, “See? That’s what I’M talking about!”
Of course the banks are portrayed as the bad guys (“Where’s your boss? Now that looks like a man who would foreclose on a house!” notes Marcus during one post-robbery investigation), but the tellers who work at the banks and even the small-branch managers are portrayed as regular folks who are no doubt enduring financial struggles of their own. Even the characters with two or three lines aren’t caricatures.
You could freeze nearly any frame of “Hell or High Water” and you’d be looking at a work of art. It’s stark and breathtaking and gorgeous to behold.
Pine has never been better. Foster is frighteningly good. Bridges is Bridges — he has nearly as much screen time as the brothers, but if he’s positioned in the supporting actor category, he could get a nomination. Birmingham has the quietest of the four main roles, but he gets his moments, and he’s great at every turn.
This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. If you tell me you love movies, I can’t imagine you not wanting to see it.
CBS Films presents a film directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.