The elements of “Hell or High Water” sound familiar — a pair of bank-robbing brothers, a detective working his last case before retirement, the mean flatlands of West Texas — but the film turns out to be an urgent and dynamic drama told in a low, measured cadence. This is the most arresting and entertaining mainstream movie in a summer season crowded with giant entertainments that pummeled the audience into fatigue. Here, the filmmakers don’t shout at you — it’s a quiet spellbinder that makes you sit up and lean in close.
Directed by David Mackenzie, who made the bruising prison drama “Starred Up,” and based on a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote last year’s drug-war thriller “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” feels big because its stakes are so low. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) aren’t violent maniacs on a tear: They target small banks, early in the morning just after they’ve opened, and only take small bills, careful not to hurt anyone. Toby, who is divorced with two sons, is level-headed and careful and looks uncomfortable while breaking the law. Tanner, who recently got out of prison, is mouthy and impetuous. He’s fearless, but he’s not crazy, and the movie makes it clear that the brothers are spurred on by a sense of mission. They have an end game in mind.
On their trail are Marcus (Jeff Bridges), an old-coot Texas Ranger who’s seen it all and doesn’t care to see much more, and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is half-Cherokee and endures his partner’s racist jokes because he knows they are expressions of Marcus’ barbed-wire affection. Marcus is the sort of detective who can walk into a crime scene and suss out clues and motives by sniffing the air. The movie lays out his investigation as clearly as it gradually reveals the reason for Toby and Tanner’s crime spree. The suspense comes in seeing how fate is setting up these men to collide. You dread the inevitability of what’s coming, but you can’t wait to see what happens next.
The film regards its characters with the same clear-eyed empathy cinematographer Giles Nuttgens uses to capture the desolate Texas landscapes, which look too big and empty — they have too much sky. In one beautifully surreal scene, Marcus and Alberto encounter a group of cowboys on horseback herding cattle across the highway, fleeing a runaway brush fire. One of the men asks Marcus to radio for help. But the ranger tells him there’s nothing he can do because there aren’t any firemen willing to drive out to such a remote area.
“Hell or High Water” unfolds in small towns so economically starved that even gas stations are shuttered and closed. This is a part of rural America that’s been drained, sucked dry and forgotten, its inhabitants largely left to fend for themselves. But these people are built strong. Two of the best scenes in the movie involve waitresses: One is a young woman who openly flirts with Toby in a way that feels endearing and desperate. Another is a steely old broad who doesn’t bother to tell customers the day’s specials because there aren’t any, and you’re going to have the steak anyway so why bother.
“Hell or High Water” is a story about men (the only important female character, Toby’s ex-wife, appears in just one scene), but the movie is really about a mindset, a way of life, the strength and resolution required to make a living in a world that doesn’t care about you. The actors all latch onto that wavelength. Bridges refuses to make his flinty lawman cuddly and likable: Life has made him crusty on the inside, as well as the outside. Foster gets the showy role — Tanner is a hothead — but he makes a strong brotherly bond with Pine’s Toby, a man filled with great regret and disappointment who refuses to settle for the fate he’s been dealt.
“Hell or High Water” doesn’t end the way you’d expect — this isn’t a western, where differences are settled with gunfire — and the movie stays with you because it’s so tight and concise and confident. It’s about something, which has become a rarity in Hollywood pictures. Sometimes, the smallest stories cast the largest shadows.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham.
Director: David Mackenzie.
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan.
A CBS Films release. Running time: 102 minutes. Vulgar language, gun violence, gore. Playing at area theaters.