Movie Review: High Crimes and Low Lives in “Hell or High Water”.

The setting is West Texas. Oil derricks siphon black gold from what’s left of the scorched earth. The surrounding land is disturbingly quiet. Storefront walls are tagged with angry graffiti that reads: “Three tours in Iraq and still no bailouts for people like us.” The landscape is flat and arid: mostly strip malls and greasy spoon diners. And banks. Lots and lots of Texas Midland regional banks.

Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are two local Texas brothers who are also the principal heroes, if that’s the right word, of the spellbinding, razor-sharp new neo-Western “Hell or High Water”. Toby and Tanner know a thing or two about these banks. They are full-time thieves who specialize in banks. They are skilled crooks, if by no means professional, though they end up hitting more than three small branches before the film’s first thirty minutes are up.

The systemic reasoning behind the brother’s crimes remains deliberately foggy for some time. Their mother has just passed on, having left the bulk of her ranch estate to older brother Toby, who is the more cautious and level-headed of the two. Why endure the potentially fatal risk of sticking up a bank if you’ve got a trust for your kids to hold onto? Another curious detail of the boy’s crimes involves their method of extracting cash. Toby and Tanner never take from the vault, never open up one of those bags equipped with an exploding dye sack to momentarily destabilize a thief. These guys are smart, but their methods are unusual. They take tens and twenties from the front register and spend it before it can be traced. Soon, the brothers find themselves on the run from a wizened old Lone State lawman with a mouth full of mush, one by the name of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, giving one of his all-time best performances). Hamilton is a man whose gravelly voice booms with authority, and whose quiet, bemused professionalism belies a reluctant admiration for these outlaws and their carefully considered schemes.

“Hell or High Water” is a tense, gritty and thoroughly absorbing American crime drama that’s like a blast of fresh air after being mired in the smog of what’s been, all things considered, a pretty dreadful movie year. Films like these are in short supply these days: dramas made for adults that somehow dazzle their audiences without dumbing down their vision. With its sun-drenched bordertown vistas and taciturn, pistol-packing lawmen, the film occasionally resembles the milieu of Graham Yost’s brilliant FX crime drama “Justified,” though that show had a breezier tone and was less interested in the malleable morality of its characters. You could also theoretically trace “Hell or High Water’s” creative DNA back to “No Country for Old Men,” with its raggedy old deputies dispensing philosophical advice and abrupt, ugly explosions of violence, and even “Blood Simple” as far as the disquieting backwardness of the location itself. Like any worthwhile work of art, “Hell or High Water” pays earnest tribute to its influences while bravely carving out its own identity. David MacKenzie’s film pinned me to my seat for nearly all of its taut, breathless 102-minute runtime, and when the credits rolled, I felt like I had just gorged myself on a juicy Elmore Leonard paperback and was ready to devour more. Crime buffs, Western mavens and genre hounds rejoice: the summer drought is over.

MacKenzie has directed nine films, though he first came to my attention with the brutal, full-contact prison drama “Starred Up”. That film introduced the world to charismatic young star Jack O’ Connell, as well as featuring yet another mesmeric turn from the wonderful Ben Mendelsohn as an old dog in the prison yard whose sense of masculine autonomy is threatened when his shit-kicking brute of a son refuses to fall in line with the big house pecking order. “Hell or High Water” is similarly preoccupied with the strains that familial bonds can have on a criminal enterprise, but it’s a more assured, less baggy work. As tasty and free of fat as a sun-dried piece of beef jerky, this is a lean, pulse-quickening work that buzzes with purpose.

One of MacKenzie’s wisest decisions is to tell the story through quietly sophisticated and elegant visual set-ups. There is no directorial hubris on display here, no stylistic flourishes for the mere sake of it, save for one Malick-inspired magic hour shot that sees the brothers mock-wrestling through a dusk-lit prairie. Instead, MacKenzie quietly honors the film’s fantastic script, which contains dialogue that is so lived-in and rich in regional detail that, at times, I thought I was hearing it in my head instead of hearing it on a screen. These words come courtesy of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who knows this lawless world like the back of his hand. He also penned the script for Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing cartel land thriller “Sicario,” one of the best films of that year. Where that film was concerned with the emotional cost of justice and the grind of procedure over meting out justice, “Hell or High Water” is gorgeously spare and whittled down: as beautiful and nerve-rattling as a day drive through the blazing desert in a ’78 Chevy.

The film never specifies what time period it takes place in, but it doesn’t really need to. This is a world of run-down motels and miserable casinos, where everyone drives an American muscle car and there’s rarely a scene that goes by in which one of the characters isn’t swigging from a longneck of Shiner Bock. It’s a rough, alluring world that MacKenzie presents us with, but all the atmosphere from here to the next Nicolas Winding Refn flick doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t have characters to care about and drama to latch on to. Foster is predictably terrific: the actor has made a career playing loose cannons in everything from “Alpha Dog” to Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger,” but even by the standards of the roughnecks he’s embodied before, Foster’s Tanner is a mean sumbitch. There’s something about his volatility that feels scarily un-forced, like when he ditches out on a breakfast with his brother to go rob the bank next door — almost like he’s doing it for fun. Pine matches Foster in many scenes, and he’s revealed himself to be a disarmingly skilled character actor (albeit, with the face of a matinee idol) in films like this one and Craig Zobel’s underrated and understated apocalyptic reverie “Z for Zachariah”. Elsewhere, Gil Birmingham shines as a cynical old Mexican sheriff who is pursuing the brothers and “Eastbound and Down’s” Katy Mixon has two wonderful scenes as a sweet, dim diner waitress who takes a shining to the handsome Toby.

Pine’s Toby is the film’s heart, if you can say a film like this even has one. He’s a divorced father of two who, we sense, possesses something resembling a moral compass, even if he’s not above waving a gun in someone’s face to ensure that his children have some kind of future. Toby’s dire familial plight and also his complicated relationship with the plot of land his children are set to inherit also underlines some of the grim social context that makes “Hell or High Water” more resonant than it might otherwise be. This is a film set in a blighted, bombed-out Southern hellhole where there are no jobs, everyone’s carrying a gun and no one trusts each other. It’s a portrait of flyover America that is scarily real, if nevertheless embellished for the purposes of drama, but it gives Toby and Tanner’s desperate quest a kind of twisted nobility. The movie’s closing scenes drive this political underpinning home almost a bit too overtly, but the film held me in such a vise-like grip for the entirety of its runtime that those final, slightly on-the-nose touches don’t detract too much from the final product.

And yet, for all its many virtues, the best thing about “Hell or High Water” by a long mile is Jeff Bridges’ performance. This is one of the all-time great screen cowboys, and it’s also the best that Bridges has been in a long, long time. In recent years, he’s leaned a bit too hard on the gruff Southern grandpa side of his persona in films like the Coen Brother’s arch re-envisioning of Portis’ “True Grit” and the overrated country music melodrama “Crazy Heart,” where it became as much of a chore to figure out what he was actually saying as it was to pinpoint the emotional frequencies of his character. His Marcus Hamilton has seen it all and done it all, but there’s something in the brother’s mad series of daring heists that stirs something in his soul. The character’s relationship with Birmingham’s e-cigarette-smoking old timer is one of the film’s richest pleasures: flush with an authentic and sometimes troubling sense of regional resentment and the shared burden of shouldering a job most people just aren’t cut out for. Bottom line is, Bridges is magnificent here: as soulful and lovable and purely badass as he’s ever been. “Hell or High Water” is a modest film, but it’s also a work of real, rattling power, and I look forward to whatever David MacKenzie is cooking up next. A-.