Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Plot: Two desperate brothers (Pine, Foster), are forced to rob a string of banks, incurring the wraith of an ageing Texas Ranger (Bridges).
Whoever said Wild West stories had to be set in the 19th century? British director David Mackenzie takes a staple of the Western, a tired law-man chasing down two bank-robbing troublemakers, but throws the script into 21st century Texas, a sleepy town conforming to the modern age. For every quiet Western village and local cafe, there is a neon green sports car or flashy casino. Mackenzie expertly blends the old with the new and creates a story that did surprisingly well in the cinemas next to the blockbusters. It is a great example of an original story holding its own in a sea of big bucks reboots.
Its greatest charm is the three-dimensional depth it gives every angle of its tale. While on paper, this is a very generic crime thriller (the hero is one day away from retirement, one of the criminal brothers is a loose cannon), Mackenzie adds so many layers of character details and murky morality to the movie that by the time it hits its stride, it is no longer easy to make those comparisons to cliché. For example, while Bridges is the lead and hero of the story, more attention and time is spent developing the two villain brothers. There is a point where they do not even feel like villains. Grieving their late mother and Chris Pine’s older brother in despair, as the greedy banks try to rob his family ranch from him, Pine thinks of the most poetic way of saving his family’s legacy and keeping his two sons in enough money to never need to worry about it: steal from the same bank they need to pay. The movie’s one misstep is that it is never quite hammered home why the bank is specifically nasty (we are thrown into the movie from the first bank robbery), as if Mackenzie assumes the audience already dislikes banks in general, but otherwise we actually start the movie, and perhaps end the movie, siding with the brothers over the heroes. For one, Bridges character’s motivations are more personal and self-serving that the robbers: he wants this assignment to both feed his egotistical need for a challenge and prolong his final case before the retirement he secretly fears creeps up on him. It’s not the fastest movie in the world, its final battle a tense stalemate of a shoot-out rather than an explosive firefight. One of the best scenes is the usually clichéd police roadblock scene, which sees us wait unbearable long to find out if the likeable bank robber is going to pass the police check or not. It doesn’t do anything new other than get us to the point where we absolutely care about the character and understand the stakes. For that reason, it earns a commendable amount of respect. However, Mackenzie is much more interested in the human side of things that happen when the action dies down. Small moments where the brothers or detective partners get a chance to recount their lives and the world around them. It is hard to write up a movie where are as hooked on Pine seeing his son and divorced wife as we are the bank robberies, but that is exactly what Mackenzie does, a holistic approach to the entire picture.
Of course, it helps that the entire cast is on fine form. Jeff Bridges is the ideal choice for this character, the grumbling, sarcastic old git the kind of role that he makes most of his recent career out of. It is a credit to his performance here that we never feel like he is cashing in or playing a role he knows he can do easily. There is also the canny feeling that, as he chases down two bank robbers jetting across America, he is following a reincarnation of his older film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Perhaps it would have been nice to spend a little longer on the character, especially nearer the end when the weight of the narrative is starting to break the character. There is a sense that he is so hardened by age, we never quite peek beneath the armour, coming away from the film totally understanding the two brothers, but not quite getting to know the cop chasing them. But perhaps that is the point. As it stands, it does mean that Pine and Foster do slightly upstage the veteran. Pine, even trading in his good looks for a redneck moustache and face constantly plastered in dirt, gets across that charismatic do-gooder that fuels most of his material. He is a good casting choice here, the respect we have for him and his previous characters helping us not condemn him right from the start with his bank robbing introduction. The star of the show, simply because he is allowed that pinch more depth and room to be more villainous than his two co-stars is Ben Foster. Foster has always been a powerhouse actor, able to give 110% into any role he is given. In his youth, there was a sense that his energy was a little difficult for directors to control, certain roles not quite feeling smooth, mainly the likes of Hostage and Alpha Dog. However, with the back-to-back success of The Program and Hell or High Water, it seems that we have finally figured out how best to use the talented actor. Tanner, his character here, is a piece of work, a career criminal who turns out to be the exact man his brother needs for his scheme. While the character comes across as a reckless, adrenaline junkie, addicted to violence and power, Foster is allowed to show the heart that hides beneath his chest. He is a person who is secretly touched that his brother has allowed him to come on this emotionally strenuous journey with him and feels honoured to have a partner in crime to ride out one, final heist with. While the shoot-out on the hills might leave a sour taste in one’s mouth with America’s easy access to firearms being breezed over, allowing for a lot of the bloody, perhaps over-excessive, violence to take place, the character still resonates with the audience.
And then the film closes on an odd note. Personally, for me, the quiet epilogue of this film is one of the more intelligent beats of the movie. In making the actual winner of this scenario ambiguous, Mackenzie is ultimately saying that perhaps no one won. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter who the winner ends up being. The characters’ work is already done, the chain of events set in motion with no chance of stopping. It might frustrate those hoping for closure, but much like the Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men, the ending is one that you will appreciate in time.
Final Verdict: More thoughtful than thriller junkies would like, but the attention to detail on character makes this is a superb watch for cinema fans.