If you're looking for one of those films that could figure into end-of-the-year critics' lists, peek at "Hell or High Water," a gritty drama that barely grazed most radars.
Featuring a strong story, some great acting and a sense of place like no other.
Set in dusty Texas, the film follows two brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) who have been pulling off bank heists in order to right a wrong perpetrated on their family. If they get enough cash to pay off a loan, they can start collecting big oil money.
So, they go on a spree and, sure enough, there’s an almost-retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on their tail, determined to bring them to justice.
In the meantime, we get a good look at the economy, a thriving casino and enough locals to wonder if this wasn’t where “The Last Picture Show” was filmed. (It’s not.) It has that same dusty feel and sadness that rings through most scenes. Director David Mackenzie knows the territory and, like Peter Bogdanovich, isn’t afraid to show its underbelly.
He hammers home a few points once too often but gets great performances from Foster, Bridges and, especially, Pine and Gil Birmingham.
Pine underplays everything, particularly his scenes with family members, and comes off as something more than just a good-looking cowboy. There’s hurt under the surface and he’s determined to hide it. Birmingham, too, reveals more than what’s on the page. He’s Bridges’ sidekick, a respectful lawman who maybe has heard the jokes once too often.
When the Rangers sit outside a bank, just waiting for it to be robbed, we can feel the wind and dust blow.
It’s to Mackenzie’s credit that so much registers.
While none of the brothers’ action is really justified, there’s nobility to their crimes that lets a bit of understanding slip through.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “Hell or High Water” can’t exist without some kind of showdown. It comes, but with a few surprises. Bridges isn’t the man you think he is; Foster isn’t as evil as he’d like to believe.
Best of all, the final encounters let Pine come into his own. He’s a better actor than you think. And “Hell or High Water” is a western for all those moviegoers who say they don’t like westerns.