There’s a double throwback feel to this cowboy crime movie. A modern-day Western with frequent shout-outs to the frontier days in cattle drives, cowboy-Indian bickering, bank hold-ups and instant posses of trigger-happy citizen avengers (‘these concealed carry permits make bank robberies more complicated’), it also harks back to the cinema of the 1970s when a great many American films dealt with the declining modern West or offered jaded revisions of the classic genre.
Jeff Bridges – once fresh-faced but doomed in The Last Picture Show, Bad Company and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – is now cast as a just-about-to-retire, dryly witty Texas Ranger, the sort of part which would once have gone to Ben Johnson or Richard Farnsworth. He’s on the trail of a couple of bandido brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who relish the chance to be the sort of cool/wired double act Nicholson and Dern do in The King of Marvin Gardens. Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) set out on a planned spree, hitting branches of the Texas Midlands Bank first thing in the morning, rousting tellers for untraceable bills – then visiting a Comanche-run casino to launder the cash. Its part of formerly straight-arrow Toby’s plan to secure the family ranch (which has just turned out to be oil-rich) for his kids … while long-time crook Tanner, who shot their abusive father in ‘a hunting accident’ (‘what were they hunting in a barn?’), brings a firecracker unpredictablity plainly likely to lead to folks getting shot and a High Sierra-style last-reel high desert chase/stand-off. Putting the pieces together is veteran lawman Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who constantly needles half-Indian/half-Mexican sidekick Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) with racial stereotype gags.
Scripted by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), Hell or High Water is nicely-paced. It takes time to observe cattle being driven away from a scrub fire by a fed-up rancher (Keith Merryweather), and include pointed little encounters with one-scene characters on the road – a friendly waitress (Katy Mixon) who takes a shine to big-tipping Toby and a mean one (Margaret Bowman) who snarls at the rangers, a simmering Comanche (Gregory Cruz) in the casino whose staredown with Tanner parallels the joshing between Marcus and Alberto. Heavily featured are such emblematic images of a dying West as a chained-up and closed-down bank branch, ugly oil-wells on unused farmland, signs with bullet-holes and miles of little-driven road across vast praries. The simple story blurs morality as a decent man’s crusade to support his family – striking at banks who are likened to the cavalry who dispossessed the Native Americans – still racks up a body count, with a shocking turn at the climax which shades the larks into tragedy.