If “No Country for Old Men” were remade as a heist movie, it might look something like director David Mackenzie’s Texas-set thriller “Hell or High Water.” Grounded in lively performances by Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a pair of bank-robbing brothers, with a capable assist from a no-nonsense Jeff Bridges as the sheriff on their tail, “Hell or High Water” tries nothing new but delivers a fun ride.
A tale of scheming criminals and equally committed men in uniform engaged in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, Mackenzie has crafted an ode to an effective formula. It’s also a radical departure from Mackenzie’s last feature, the jittery prison drama “Starred Up,” but “Hell or High Water” delivers just as many engaging moments in more outwardly entertaining terms.
“Hell or High Water” leaps right into the action with an opening robbery in which masked assailants Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) clean out a bank in broad daylight before speeding off to the desert, where they promptly bury their getaway vehicle. That ritual repeats itself several times, with the pair constantly on the move and evading authorities every step of the way. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens emphasizes the sweltering heat with a bright desert canvas, while the twangy score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis keeps the pace moving at a vibrant clip.
It doesn’t take long to establish the brothers’ dynamic: The soft-spoken Toby shows some resistance to the criminal life, but goes along to satisfy his wily older sibling, a troublemaker fresh out of prison who’s almost too good at breaking all the rules. “I never met nobody that got away with everything,” Toby asserts, but presses forward nonetheless.
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Enter Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges), a grizzled old-timer who’s basically filling the Tommy Lee Jones role from “No Country” with a punchier sense of humor. Trying to anticipate the robbers’ next move, he launches a road trip through a series of small towns with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Christian of Native American descent whose capacity for shrugging off Marcus’ casual racism becomes a recurring motif.
Bridges does his best John Wayne when he isn’t going for laughs and the movie faces similar tonal problems, as if Mackenzie couldn’t quite figure out which genre trope he wanted to rip off next. Fortunately, he chose some good ones. From seedy hotel rooms to grimy diners (one with a memorably smarmy waitress), “Hell or High Water” poeticizes the desperation of small-town American life where its insular communities turn on each other even as they thrive on isolation.
As “Hell or High Water” shifts between the brothers’ scheme and the cops on their tail, Mackenzie creates a fascinating contrast of sympathies Toby and Tanner are in the midst of a high-stakes gamble inevitably bound for collapse, but it’s a blast to watch them get away with it while they can. And while the sheriff isn’t the most likable figure, he brings his own heroic swagger to the table, so it’s never entirely clear which side of the battle has the upper hand. That ambiguity continues right through a tense, final exchange between the officer and his mark, when it’s a bit unclear who’s the actual victor — or whether such a thing is even possible, when both sides are already lost causes.
“Hell or High Water” delivers a fantastic set of showdowns, from cars streaking down the highways to bullets flying through the close quarters of a bank. Mackenzie frames it all with a clarity sorely lacking from many bigger productions. Just as it taps into a dying corner of American society, “Hell or High Water” resurrects the power of western mayhem done right.
“Hell or High Water” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. CBS Films will release it later this year.