British director David Mackenzie knows how to deliver a rip-roaring crime thriller, and he has an ear for West Texas idioms, too.
His new movie, “Hell or High Water,” stars Chris Pine as Toby, a divorced father of two boys, who has taken care of his mother before she died. He’s a good guy, but the ranch and home had to be mortgaged to cover her care, and the “kindly” bank has set a deadline to pay off the debt. But here’s the catch: Oil companies have discovered oil on the ranch, and Toby wants to make sure he can pass the land along to his kids in a trust so that they’ll escape the family’s cycle of poverty.
Enter brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who has just gotten out of prison and is ready to help. They decide to rob various branches of the bank that holds the mortgage, then give the money back to the bank by paying off the debt. They’re strictly going after small bills, no bills so large that they can be traced. And the amounts are small enough to keep federal agents out of the picture.
It’s sort of like Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s a brother act, with sharp dialogue from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”). Tanner is a wild man, and he’s way too eager to use a gun. Toby, meanwhile, tries to keep him in check, with little success.
Underlying the robberies is a not-so-subtle commentary on the mortgage crisis and the decline of rural areas in America. But this time, it’s not the 1930s Depression era of Bonnie and Clyde, but more recent times.
Naturally, the law has to make an entrance as the bank robberies multiply. And that’s where Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) comes in. He’s old and wily and near retirement, and the spree of robberies gives him a chance to have a last bit of fun. He also is constantly ribbing his half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
All of the actors are fantastic, but Foster and Bridges have the showiest roles. Even so, they don’t own the movie. It’s pretty much stolen by a sassy, no-nonsense waitress at a steakhouse, who asks the visiting Rangers what “they don’t want.” Turns out that they’re going to get a T-bone medium rare, and they need to decide whether they don’t want the corn or the beans. And she’s still smarting from a customer back in the 1980s who tried to order trout. The waitress is played by 88-year-old Margaret Bowman, and she’s hilarious.
I have only one negative thing to say about “Hell or High Water.” Like many Texas-based movies, it wasn’t shot here. Instead, it was filmed in New Mexico. And it’ll be obvious to anyone who knows the New Mexican landscape. Most people won’t care. “Hell or High Water” is one of the best Westerns of the past few years.
‘HELL OR HIGH WATER’
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Rating: R, for violence, language, brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor.