The real stars of the new neo-western “Hell or High Water” aren’t the top line cast, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges. All are terrific, but the main attractions are the Fast Cash and Debt Relief signs that dot the West Texas landscape. They’re the reason we’re here and the engine that propels this story of outlaws, buddies and banks.
Pine plays Toby, a divorced father of two with a plan to make a better life for his kids. “I’ve been poor my whole life,” says Toby (Pine). “It’s like a disease passed from generation to generation. My parents their parents before them. It becomes a sickness. But not my boys.” With his estranged brother Tanner (Foster), an ex-convict ripe with attitude and anger, he plans a series of robberies to get some old fashioned Texas-style justice against the Texas Midlands Banks who loaned their mother just enough money to keep her in debt for the rest of her short life. They are robbing hoods that steal from the rich, the banks, to give to the poor, themselves. “To see you boys pay the banks back with their own money,” says their attorney. “It doesn’t get much more Texan than that.”
Between them and their revenge is Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges), a grizzled veteran just weeks away from retirement. “Did you hear about them bank robberies,” says his half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham),” we might get to have some fun before they send you off to the rocking chair.”
Echoes of the Coen brothers ricochet throughout “Hell or High Water.” Aside from Coen regular Bridges, the movie exists in an amoral universe populated by down-on-their-heels types, done in either by poor life decisions, circumstance, age or temperament. English director David Mackenzie places these characters amid sun bleached landscapes and the hardened faces of citizens asserting their Second Amendment rights. It feels like the Coen Brothers but only because Joel and Ethan has visited this nihilistic comedy territory several times before. Mackenzie hasn’t simply made “No Country For Old Men Lite,” he’s combined interesting characters with a languid pace that apes the speed of life in West Texas to create a potent portrait of a time and place.
Set against the backdrop of West Texas’s perpetual economic downturn and those ever-present Fast cash signs, it’s a story not just about the four men but the circumstance that pitted them against one another.
“Hell or High Water” is two buddy movies in one. As one of the brothers Foster is reliable in his familiar man-on-the-edge role, but it is Pine who impresses. He underplays Toby, never doing more than he has to and avoiding the theatrics of his “Star Trek” films. It’s a career best performance that shows there is more to him than larger-than-life franchise work.
As the heavy-breathing lion in winter Bridges brings both gravitas and a light touch. His skill as a Ranger is evident but so is his offbeat sensibility. “Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house,” he says when meeting a recently robbed bank manager. It’s a throwaway line but Bridges brings it to life in a way that made me wonder if there is a more comfortable presence on screen than Bridges? He is matched in ease and charm by Birmingham who is a perfect foil for Bridges.
With its unhurried, deliberate pace Nick Cave’s suitably moody score and Mackenzie’s eye for detail “Hell or High Water” is more than a stop-gap between Coen Brothers neo westerns, it’s one of the most richly satisfying movies of the year so far.