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Bullets and brotherhood in the Modern West

It turns out that the modern American West is a country for old men, no matter what Cormac McCarthy, the Coen Brothers and the Oscars think. The “old man” who is, far and away, the making of “Hell or High Water” is 66-year-old Jeff Bridges, who plays retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton in the much-acclaimed movie.

At his age now, Bridges is practically a one-man cast of characters in a John Ford movie – with the wily authority of an aging John Wayne and drawling senior grandeur of Ward Bond. He’s always been one of the coolest actors in American movies (see The Coens’ “The Big Lebowski”), but in a role and a movie like this one, the fit is once-again Lebowski-perfect.

But then so is this movie perfect for Ben Foster and, yes, Chris Pine, the heartthrob of the “Star Trek” reboot prequels. If “Star Trek” movies have unfortunately convinced you that Pine is no better than a good-looking plank of plywood from Home Depot, you owe it to yourself (and Pine) to see “Hell or High Water,” where he smolders with quiet, wet-eyed rage until, in one unexpected scene, he comes to violent defense of his violent, troublemaking, threatened brother.

This is a brother movie. Loyalty and sacrifice are the subjects. Pine and Foster play mismatched brothers coming to the defense of the family ranch in modern West Texas. It seems that the Texas Midland Bank managed to put their dying mother $25,000 in debt in reverse mortgages and unpaid taxes. If the brothers, after her death, don’t come up with the dough quickly, the bank is going to get the ranch and, oh yes, any oil rights to what’s lying beneath it (which, when we’re talking about this otherwise scrubby property, is no small matter.)

So the brothers team up for a string of bank robberies – all restricted to small bills in the drawers of tellers for the Texas Midland Banks that are the centers of their grievances. The time period is the economic shiver of 2008 that disenfranchised so many Americans in an era when people had every right to wonder why this sort of abuse didn’t go out with the Great Depression.

If you remember, the first modern hostility toward Depression banks hit us with Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” You’ll see some of that film’s same attitude toward bank robbery in some of the rural truckstop cafes of “Hell or High Water.” When he hears about the string of bank robberies all around him, one guy observes after breakfast that “bank’s been robbin’ me for 30 years.”

“God, I love West Texas,” says the Texas Ranger played with sly flamboyance by Bridges. Never mind that the home of George W. Bush was, according to Ishmael Reed, where Hell on Earth was for the bluesmen. Our retiring ranger loves every dry, dirty, paradoxical inch of it – the absurd violence of its criminals, the leathery toughness of its people, no one more leathery than Hamilton himself.

This movie was originally called “Comancheria,” which is the name of the West Texas/Oklahoma area where the Comanches once roamed before being overrun by greedy palefaces. The two brothers like to fancy themselves modern Comanches, taking what they need to live off the land.

The movie does a lot of politically incorrect playing around with that idea as a metaphor despite the fact that the original title had to be changed for the sake of universality and box office potential.

Hamilton’s relationship with his younger, Ranger partner (Gil Birmingham) is full of typical male ethnic towel-snapping for humor’s sake. Hamilton makes as many jokes as he can about his partner’s combination of Mexican and Native American heritages while his partner makes just as many jokes about his partner being old and needing a refuge before Alzheimer’s sets in. It’s the Rickles-ism that’s still essential to male conviviality in American provinces.

Nothing is overdone here. The photography is arrestingly stark and real and sometimes magnificent (a brushfire forces cowboys to herd cattle around it while they marvel at having to do that in the 21st century).

Of the two brothers, Pine plays the smart, mysterious and deep one as well as the handsome one. Foster is his violent, squirrelly brother, the convicted bank robber in the family with a 10-year stint in the joint in his past.

There’s a lot of dry, incongruous humor in the film – so that the audience can “love West Texas” as perversely as the Ranger mockingly does. It’s a place of incongruities in the tales told later at “beer o’clock.”

This, immaculately told on film, is one of them. The director is Brit David Mackenzie (“Starred Up,” “Perfect Sense”). The writer is Taylor Sheridan who played the late goodie-goodie David Hale on “Sons of Anarchy” and who wrote the superb “Sicario.”

The ending is an insidious stunner – not only for its insistence on life’s triumph over cinema but its harshly matter-of-fact attitude toward the bank that the movie has spent so much time damning.

This is a movie about a couple of indigenous natives who are as at home in this country as the rattlesnakes – one old, out-of-shape Ranger, and one handsome, desperate young scrambler trying to figure out how to survive and prevail.

Their ages are different. But the movie makes clear that they, too, are brothers.



3.5 stars (out of 4)

Title: “Hell or High Water”

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham

Director: David Mackenzie

Running time: 102 minutes

Rating: R for strong violence, language, brief sex.

The Lowdown: Two Texan brothers go on a bank-robbing spree to save the family ranch.

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