‘Hell or High Water’
Director: David Mackenzie
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine
4 (out of 5) Globes
“Hell or High Water” is the rare crime movie with room for both commentary on the housing crisis and “That’s what she said” jokes. It’s a smoothie of ingredients that shouldn’t go together but do. It’s not a comedy, but it is funnier than most yuk-fests. It’s a stark genre grinder but rarely unpleasant and not above getting caught up in some law-breakin’ fun. It harkens back to the good ol’ b-movie days but without seeming like a slavish and soulless pastiche. And it’s as personable and precise as the Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges, who’s as sharp with a one-liner as he is with a sniper rifle.
Such balance is perhaps unexpected from writer Taylor Sheridan. There weren’t many laughs in “Sicario,” and lots of aggro posturing on “Sons of Anarchy.” But his latest — directed by shape-shifter David Mackenzie, who’s capable of making the dour “Young Adam” and the electric “Starred Up” — is a well-oiled machine.
The set-up is classic cops-and-robbers, but not one to take sides. Even before we learn their real motives, it’s a gas riding along with Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), ne’er-do-well brothers — one brooding, the other anarchic — who light out to knock over a series of banks. On their trail is Bridges’ Marcus, a grizzled lawman not happy about his looming retirement. Yes, it’s that old chestnut. But fear not: “Hell or High Water” isn’t just assured enough that you forgive it that trespass. It makes that cliche work: You sense Marcus really has no other purpose in this grim wasteland but to chase bad guys.
The same goes for the stuff about foreclosure-happy banks. Its message could be heavy-handed, but Mackenzie and Sheridan often keep this business in the background. (Sometimes literally: There are untold billboards out to snooker the unlucky in need of “debt relief.”) Without giving too much away, the brothers’ scheme is in part an assault on a system out to get the little guy. It’s a vision of the modern world in which the Old West has, to some degree, come back, prompting nobodies to take on their own twisted take on frontier justice.
That sounds grim, and “Hell or High Water” can be pitiless and mean — all dirt roads and endless arid horizons, ghost towns and grimy motel rooms, plaintive music and the occasional Nick Cave song. That doesn’t mean the movie can’t crack wise. Jokes come early and often, whether people are just killing time or each other. Sheridan has a way with words. A boring motel night is saved by a debate over whether God would watch evangelists or baseball. (Baseball, natch.) One character hits on a woman then bids farewell with the line, “On your last day in the nursing home, you’ll think of me and giggle.” Mackenzie, a Scotsman invading America, soaks in the local color, and even finds the film’s MVP: a surly old steakhouse waitress, who is definitely a real local and almost certainly wrote her own dialogue. (“How are you?” inquires Marcus. “Hot, and not the good kind,” she shoots back.)
Then there’s Tanner. Foster has played untold psychotic intensos (including Lance Armstrong), but Tanner’s the first one that loves to wreak havoc. He knows that life is short and he’d rather live it doing whatever he wants. In his case, that means embracing his worst instincts, not being tamed by society or even basic compassion. He’s a delightful guy, provided you ignore his body count. “Hell or High Water” doesn’t share his sociopathic glee, but its gallows humor is something fierce, and it doesn’t shy away from death or, perhaps worse, a living death, with characters who survive knowing life will be unbearable. It’s something else, this movie — a dirty entertainment that doesn’t let an acute awareness of the fates get in the way of having a laugh.