“Hell Or Highwater”

Another old-fashioned film opened this week, a cowboy “Bonnie  and Clyde” set in West Texas. Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster star in this anti-bank themed rodeo of gunslingers. Divorced younger brother, Toby ( Chris Pine) comes up with a plan to save the family ranch from foreclosure. Aided by his violent jail-bird bro, Tanner, ( Ben Foster) they rob small town banks just hitting the drawers until they end up with the  $43,000 needed to set up a trust for Chris’s two boys. Soon to retire sheriff, Jeff Bridges , knows reckless behavior when he sees it, but he also knows a smart plan. This is his law and order story with a twist against a system that works against the struggling poor.

Amid road signs of “Debt Relief”,  ” Fast Cash”,”Bill’s Jumbo Burger” and “T-Bone Cafe”, we hear a slow ominous sound track interspersed with ballad lyrics like “just a cryin’ shame” and ” I’m lost in the dust of the chase my life remains.” Waitresses are a big part of small town diner life, and two of them add much to the tale. There is no political correctness or anything but ” poor ass criminal” talk here. “Cowpokes with ski masks” one waitress explains.

The observant sheriff’s deputy, Alberto,( Gil Birmingham) is  a Comanche. Their relationship is a love/hate one. Their stare downs are fraught with play acting. As they sit on a porch stake-out, Bridges says,” It is my teasing that you are going to miss.” We wish this was all.

Windmills, gas and oil pumps dot the land, as well as bullet-ridden trucks. This sheriff is not going to “sit on the porch practicing his future.” But neither is he the delusional  one who thinks he is ” Lord Of The Plains”. Jeff Bridges ( Marcus)is the star here. He is gruff, funny, and insightful. When he is directing Alberto towards the bank manager, he pops off with ” he looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” He glories in insulting jibes, many of them “injun insults” directed at Alberto. Country music background music adds humorously to their verbal snipes. ” Just because you asked me to” underscores the scene. Kitschy humor is everywhere. When a waitress who has been on the job forty-four years is asked how she is, she retorts ” hot, and not the good kind.” School teachers get called out for ” all the shit in the back ” of the their vehicles. Alberto has the best line: ” sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.”  Taylor Sheridan wrote the accomplished screenplay.

We learn a lot about practical codes: Don’t rob a bank at lunch time. We see that everyone in West Texas is armed and that vigilanteism reigns. One metaphor is filmed in the form of a snake. Other images like the end shot are distracted by the prism -like glare of the camera lens.

After the sheriff retires, he persists in tracking down the one robber that got away. The story arc ends with a ” How did you do it ?” query. But we are left with a class war between the rich and the poor Texas style. Killing seems to just be part of evening  the score. Director David MacKenzie is subtle in his social commentary, but from the view of this reviewer guns still sadly rule.