Starring Jeff Bridges. Rated 14A
The first thing we see in this near-perfect film is some graffiti on the side of a West Texas bank. “Three tours of Iraq,” it reads, “but no bailout for me.” A little too direct, maybe, given the morally contorted cops ’n’ robbers flick that follows, but most of the miracles performed by Hell or High Water—which achieves a powerful confluence of styles between Scottish director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and Texan actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario)—seem to manifest in spite of themselves.
Let’s start with Jeff Bridges, dangerously close to audience fatigue with his late-career Rooster Cogburn bit and yet hitting some kind of emotional zenith as weary Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He’s on the verge of retirement and staring down the barrel of a few other clichés besides, including his relationship with a half-Comanche, half-Mexican sidekick, Alberto Parker (Twilight’s Gil Birmingham), constantly on the receiving end of Hamilton’s boorish razzing.
There are a lot of real, if uncomfortable, laughs in that setup, which isn’t totally lopsided. “Are you interested in hearing about these robberies or are you just gonna sit there and let the Alzheimer’s run its course?” chides Parker, in turn setting the duo on the trail of two masked bandits with an unlikely jones for small hits in even smaller dust-bowl banks. Their story is the gravitational centre of this vision of Hell, in which the brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both superb) have hard personal reasons for stealing from the rich.
From single-parent waitresses to old cowboys to the two lawmen themselves, we’re constantly reminded that everyone in this film is resigned to a justice system mechanically working for the wrong side. All that’s left are needless personal grudges at the losing end of trickle-down economics, reduced to an unforgettable final exchange that could have been ripped from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Sure, we all know they don’t make ’em like this anymore. At least until they do.