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'Hell or High Water': When the banks steal from you, is it OK to rob them?

“Hell or High Water” is a gripping heist drama keenly attuned to the outsider politics of our times.

Set in the desolate sprawl of West Texas, it opens, like many such movies do, with a bank robbery. Outside the building, spray-painted on the wall are the words: “3 tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us." Later, after another holdup, Texas Rangers try to pry information from reluctant witnesses. “Bank been robbing me for 30 years,” a man tells them, explaining why he might be a bit vague on supplying helpful details.

The film sports two Robin Hoods, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), armed with guns, ski masks and a very precise plan. They demand small-denomination bills and hit only branches of one specific bank. You may conclude that they’re crazy or holding a grudge. Both observations turn out to be true, though, of the two, it’s Tanner, one year removed from a 10-year jail stretch, who’s the more volatile of the two. 

“How’d you manage to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his older brother.

“It’s been difficult,” Tanner replies.

That exchange is a nice example of the movie’s sly humor, which is grounded in character between the dissimilar brothers as well as the two mismatched Texas Rangers chasing them, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), an old-timer three weeks from an unwanted retirement, and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), his Native American partner, who suffers through insults and gives back as good as he gets.

That “Hell or High Water” makes you empathize with and understand (though not excuse) each member of this disparate quartet is a tribute to the way Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay works equally well as a thriller, character study and pointed social commentary. Sheridan also wrote last year’s taut white-knuckler "Sicario,” which likewise squared its violence with a superb sense of the Southwest and the people who inhabit it.

Director David Mackenzie keeps the story moving briskly, striking a nice balance between the jolting robbery sequences and the ruminative conversations between its two pairs of men. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ beautiful widescreen compositions add to the immersive, respectful authenticity, as does Mackenzie’s superb casting that extends to the smallest roles. (The filmmakers have clearly spent their fair share of time in restaurants. The two waitresses in this movie — played by Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) and Margaret Bowman — are beauts, each in their own particular fashion.)

Playing the lawman, Bridges, looking like Kris Kristofferson from “Lone Star,” shines as a plainspoken man grieving the end of his career. Foster and Pine establish a solid connection as siblings from the get-go, with Foster making the most of every big, loose-cannon moment and Pine nicely understated as a man looking to inoculate his sons from the “disease of poverty” that has infected every generation of his family. That, as the movie's damaged landscapes make clear, is a tall order. Holding up a bank is child’s play by comparison.

‘Hell or High Water’

MPAA rating: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: In limited release

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

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