On paper, “Hell or High Water” doesn’t seem like anything special. A contemporary cops-and-robbers chase set in a string of dusty, near-shuttered West Texas towns, it’s the kind of genre piece that’s destined to be compared - unfavorably, how else? - to “No Country for Old Men.”
It turns out that this smart, superbly crafted neo-western more than holds its own in that exercise. Indeed, in some ways, “Hell or High Water” is more enjoyable than the Coen brothers’ film, which although technically flawless, projected a sense of moral severity that grew tedious and self-important by the minute. Like that 2007 film, “Hell or High Water” addresses changing times and the breakdown of community through the lens of old-fashioned good guys and bad guys. Here, though, the foe isn’t a hyped-up embodiment of irrational evil but something far more specific, structural and utterly of its time.
It takes awhile for the heroes and villains to come into clear focus in “Hell or High Water,” which begins with a beautifully staged bank robbery, wherein Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and his brother, Toby (Chris Pine), fumble their way through what’s supposed to be a slick, perfectly timed heist. “Y’all are new at this, I reckon,” an unfazed employee says with the kind of laconic, raw-boned humor that permeates Taylor Sheridan’s script like a cooling aquifer. In time, the Howard brothers come under the scrutiny of a Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) sets off on a not-quite-high-speed chase through the scrubby expanse of Texas for their increasingly confounding quarry.
What the Howards are after and why - and how they aim to square those means and ends - only gradually emerge in Sheridan’s expertly executed script. (He also wrote last year’s drug-war drama “Sicario.”) Their characters reveal themselves, as well. Driving their getaway car, or grabbing breakfast on the run, it becomes clear how different Toby is from the hot-headed Tanner, who sees himself as a romanticized “lord of the plains,” in the tradition of the great Comanche tribesmen. It’s been obvious for a while now that Foster is an accomplished actor, especially in roles like the tightly coiled, wild-eyed Tanner. The revelation here is Pine, who dons a mustache and greased-back hair to deliver a subtle, well-judged portrayal of a good man gone bad - but maybe with good reason, hinted at by the foreclosure and debt-consolidation signs the duo pass on their way from ghost town to ghost town.
As the grizzled, almost-retired lawman on the thieves’ trail, Bridges adds a layer of mordant world-weariness to “Hell or High Water.” A glib way to describe his performance would be to say he’s channeling Kris Kristofferson in a role meant for Tommy Lee Jones, but that’s not fair to Bridges’s own understated gifts. A scene late in the film, when he reacts after dispatching a crucial character, is an almost off-handed masterpiece of screen acting. Directed with rich detail, superb tonal control and an exceptionally graceful camera by David Mackenzie (”Starred Up”), “Hell or High Water” takes a story and protagonists that could easily have lived inside a myth spun by John Ford and plunks them down in a world of tweaking, texting, fracking, reverse mortgages and concealed-carry laws. (One of Marcus’s deputies doesn’t pull on a cigar or corn-cob pipe - he vapes.)
There’s deep grief in “Hell or High Water,” as well as grudging, rueful wit and sinewy home truths about ethnicity in a pre-post-racial America. If the filmmakers are occasionally too obvious by half in their depiction of the Big Bad Banks, they still deserve credit for bringing style and solid values to a movie that winds up being less about crime, comeuppance and genre cliches than continuity, change, the cruel legacy of dispossession and the fight to create a usable past. In a word, “Hell or High Water” is terrific. It’s arrived just in time to make the dog days of summer more bearable.
Hell or High Water
Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout, brief sexuality. Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Dale Dickey. Director: David Mackenzie. Running time: 102 minutes. Theater: Flicks.