Lords of the Plains

Jeff Bridges pursues bank-robbing brothers in ‘Hell or High Water’

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Hell or High Water
Starring Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges & Ben Foster
Directed by David Mackenzie
R
Wide release Aug. 19

Two masked men bumble and fumble their way through an early-morning bank robbery in an otherwise sleepy Texas town. They’ve got guns and they mean business, but they’ve shown up before the bank is open, before there’s any money in the cash drawers and before anyone can unlock the safe.

“Y’all are new at this, I’m guessin’?” asks a hapless secretary, the only employee on the premises, suggesting they just turn around and leave before the situation escalates—or anyone gets hurt. “Right now, the only thing you’re guilty of is being stupid.”

“Stupid” isn’t the term, however, that comes to the mind of soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who sees something smarter developing in the string of heists spreading across the parched Texas midsection, always in the morning, always by a pair of men demanding bills of small denominations, and always hitting a small branch of the same bank, Texas Midland.

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Ben Foster & Chris Pine

That’s the terrific setup of Hell or High Water, in which two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), try to right wrongs of their past in a scheme that’s much more complex, and much more understandable, than it first seems. Pine, best known for playing Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, makes a powerful dramatic breakaway as a divorced dad desperate to hold onto the family farm for his kids. Foster, who’s had supporting roles in nearly 50 movies and TV shows, is galvanizing as his older sibling, an ex-con with rattlesnake-like anger-management issues stemming from childhood.

Playing Texas Ranger Hamilton, Bridges is in somewhat of his True Grit Rooster Cogburn mode, seasoned by a pinch of Tommy Lee Jones from No Country For Old Men. As he closes in on the robbers and their plan, the movie becomes as much about Hamilton’s working relationship with his Comanche-Mexican deputy partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham, who played Billy Black in the Twilight franchise), and the affectionately racist joshing that’s bonded them over the years.

British-born director David Mackenzie has made more than a dozen films, but probably nothing you’ve seen on a big screen. Here he shows a keen grasp of 21st century America, especially the collision of the Old West and the new-world economy, gun culture, the devastating appetites of corporate greed and the painful, lasting scars of poverty. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who sharpened his craft on BBC nature documentaries and independent fare, elevates the look of practically every frame to artistry.

“We’re like Comanches—raiding where we please, the whole of Texas. Lords of the plains!” gloats Tanner. A later encounter in an Oklahoma casino with a real-life, modern-day Comanche, however, casts an ominous pall over his proclamation.

If you think you know where Hell or High Water is headed, you may be wrong. Or at least you probably won’t be totally right—which is just about right for this outstanding movie, which puts the line between right and wrong underneath a scorching, unforgiving Texas sun then stretches it out on a lonesome, steaming highway, toward a blurred horizon, with no clear end in sight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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