J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hell or High Water: Jeff Bridges, Texas Ranger

Everything is bigger in Texas, except their latest serial bank robbers. The Howard Brother bandits are definitely playing small ball, but with a purpose. They will only hit a particular bank with branches located exclusively in West Texas and they just take the loose bills in the teller drawers. As a result, the FBI has no time for them, leaving them to a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement. Yet, that old bird dog is still enjoys the hunt in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Tanner Howard did not learn much responsibility when he was in prison. That was always his brother Toby’s department, but trying circumstances still managed to overwhelm the younger Howard sibling. He nursed their mother during the final days of her prolonged illness, while reeling from own divorce. Since he has little income to speak of, the bank is on the brink of foreclosing their predatory mortgage on the family ranch. That would be particularly unfortunate, since oil has been discovered on the property. You know: black gold, Texas Tea.

Essentially, the smarter Howard boy came up with the plan to pay off the bank by robbing its unmarked cash, laundering it through the local Native American casino, paying off the mortgage, and then putting the oil rich ranch into trust for his semi-estranged sons. However, time is running out and Tanner isn’t getting any more stable. Plus, grizzled old Marcus Hamilton, the Archie Bunker of the Texas Rangers, and his long-suffering Comanche-Mexican American partner Alberto Parker are on the case, so the last bank they need is likely to be a toughie.

Yes sir, this film is set in Texas and even though it was filmed in New Mexico, the British Mackenzie (known for Starred Up and the over-achieving science fiction fable Perfect Sense) gets the look, sounds, and attitude precisely right. Of course, he gets a massive assist from honorary Texan Jeff Bridges, who goes back to the Crazy Heart-True Grit well, chewing the scenery with laconic orneriness. Bridges is instantly credible in a part like this, yet it is almost shocking how broken down and decrepit he looks.

Chris Pine is fine as Toby Howard, but Ben Foster is a scene-stealing natural fit for the emotionally erratic Tanner. However, it is Gil Birmingham who really gives the film heart and integrity as the eternally patient Parker. He and Bridges are terrific playing off each other in scenes that often have an uncomfortably sharp edge.

Jeff Bridges’ salty hardnose persona might give HOHW the appearance a safe “greatest hits” style package, but Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is surprisingly smart in nearly every respect. There is a good deal of wry humor in the film, but it also has tragic heft. Recommended for fans of Southwestern noirs in the Blood Simple tradition, Hell or High Water opens today (8/12) in New York, at the Loews Lincoln Square uptown and the Regal Union Square downtown.

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