Two down-on-their luck brothers turn to small-time bank robbing in order to secure enough money to keep themselves afloat in "Hell or High Water," British director David Mackenzie's excellent modern Texas noir. In debt and facing foreclosure on their family ranch, Toby (Chris Pine) and his reckless ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), see their crimes as a rather poetic solution to their troubles: They can raise the necessary money while getting it over on the same banks that have been sucking them dry all their lives.
The brothers aren't the traditional free-wheeling outlaws -- Toby in particular doesn't appear to derive much joy from their activities. Divorced with two sons, he's afraid that for all his hard work throughout his life, he'll end up leaving his children with nothing. Bank-robbing seems a surefire way to make sure that doesn't happen, even if he's not around to see the results.
Meanwhile, soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges basically playing Jeff Bridges) and his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), is in hot pursuit, never far behind the brothers' trail.
Mackenzie's film is saturated in the economic desperation that seems to have permeated so much of small-town America; there's a palpable, simmering undercurrent of anger and frustration. One of the first shots of the film captures a graffitied message scrawled across the side of a building: "Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for us." When Marcus questions potential witnesses at a local diner, he finds the citizenry less than cooperative, with one man remarking that the victimized bank is the same one that's been robbing him for years. And the diner's waitress (played by Katie Mixon, who is wonderful in a small, sharply-drawn performance) refuses to hand over the enormous tip left by Toby, saying that that kind of money means she might actually be able to keep a roof over her head.
Toby is quiet and level-headed, but underneath the laconic exterior, Pine lets us see the strain of his actions and the lifetime of regrets that led him there -- it's his best performance to date. As the wildcard of the pair, Foster has the showier role, and over the years he's come to excel at playing the hot-tempered scoundrel. The shading he injects into the character shows us how Tanner's motivations come largely from a wounded sense of pride.
Bridges can play the crusty old coot in his sleep. But as with all the film's characters, there are layers -- none are as singularly heroic or villainous as they first appear. Marcus incessantly tosses racial digs at his long-suffering partner, and he plays these comments off as good-natured ribbing, but there's more than a bit of evidence that they're fueled by some very real prejudices.
David Mackenzie previously directed the searing prison drama "Starred Up," and he brings an equally impressive sense of authenticity to his portrait of West Texas. There's plenty of tension, but the film maintains an easygoing vibe to match its precisely-rendered setting. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan wrote last year's drug war thriller "Sicario," and infused the story with a similarly murky morality, while layering in a bitter sense of humor. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the desolate beauty of the Texas landscape that provides the story's backdrop.
The characters in "Hell or High Water" struggle and fight to keep their heads above water. For them, the myth of the American West -- and the promise it once held -- has long since turned to dust.