Some images just conjure the traditions of the American West, such as lawmen chasing bandits across a barren plain. Even with modern additions such as cellphones, cars or foreclosure concerns, the iconography of the western still has a powerful pull for filmmakers and audiences alike. The new “Hell or High Water” also draws great impact from the presence of Jeff Bridges, an actor who has appeared in both classical and contemporary westerns.
The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, who grew up in Texas and also wrote last year’s “Sicario,” the Emily Blunt-Benicio del Toro drug war thriller set around the U.S./Mexico border. He is also now making his directing debut with another contemporary lawmen tale he wrote, “Wind River.”
“My intention with these three was to kind of explore the modern American frontier and how much has it changed in 130 years, how much hasn’t it changed and how much are we seeing consequences of that still,” said Sheridan.
In “Hell or High Water,” two brothers -- Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) -- have begun to rob a series of small-town Texas banks in a desperate attempt to save their family’s ranch. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), on the verge of a forced retirement, throws himself into the case, much to the chagrin of his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Soon the four men are on an inevitable collision course between the law and justice, the old ways and the new, the past and the future.
If the film’s terse and moody feel puts it at odds with the big, loud and obvious style of recent summer movies, so far the distinction has been for the positive. The film has had near universal critical praise ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opened this past weekend with a strong per theater average of $18,500 with plans to continue to expand around the country.
“The West as it were occupies almost as much space in the imagination as it does in reality,” said Scottish-born director David Mackenzie (2013’s “Starred Up”). “So the cinema of the West and the West itself have become somehow intertwined.
“This felt like on the surface it’s a bank robbery movie, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a road movie, but beneath that surface it’s an examination of the passing of the Old West,” added Mackenzie. “It’s not really right for me to say so, because I’m a foreigner, but it also really felt to me like a snapshot of a nation.”
There is a tangy patois to Sheridan’s dialogue, as when Bridges identifies a banker by saying, “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” Pine quoted one of Foster’s lines from the film – “I ain’t never known nobody to get away with nothing” – as he described what he has called the “cowboy poetry” of the script.
“This film is about men relating to men and seeking intimacy, failing at intimacy, trying to articulate their love and affection for one another but desperately unable to do so,” Pine said. “Oftentimes they find themselves filling space and time with silence and ways around saying what they want to say.”
Pine and Bridges share only one scene together, a final showdown in which – spoiler alert – no shots are fired. Yet for Bridges, he didn’t initially think of “Hell or High Water” as a western.
“I didn’t really approach it that way,” Bridges said. “I can see how people can see it that way. If you put them on horses instead of cop cars, I guess it works as a Western.”
As an actor, Bridges has a long connection to both classic and contemporary westerns. His father, actor Lloyd Bridges, appeared in classic western films such as “High Noon” and “The Tall Texan.” A number of Jeff Bridges’ early roles in the 1970s, as in “The Last Picture Show,” “Fat City” and “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” were in films that engaged with imagery of the West.
After appearing in Michael Cimino’s notoriously exacting 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate,” Bridges had buildings from the set dismantled, shipped a few hundred miles to his own property in Montana and reassembled, where they remain standing to this day.
“I live in the whorehouse from ‘Heaven’s Gate,’” Bridges said with a chuckle.
More recently Bridges took on a role originally played by John Wayne in the Coen Brothers’ version of “True Grit” and finally won an Oscar as a country-and-western singer in “Crazy Heart.” Even the sci-fi action-adventure “R.I.P.D.” found him playing a ghost of an Old West lawman.
“Hell or High Water” opens with a bank robbery in Archer City, Texas, the town that was also the setting for “The Last Picture Show.” Both Bridges and veteran cowboy actor Ben Johnson were Oscar nominated for supporting actor for the film, an award Johnson won.
In a sense, “Hell or High Water” now puts Bridges in the Johnson role, as a man who realizes his time may be coming to a close.
Though Sheridan set that early scene in Archer City – the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico – it wasn’t as a purposeful connection to Bridges and the iconography he brings to the role.
“The fact Jeff plays the role is a bit divine,” Sheridan said of the connection. “I would love to say I was smart enough to have planned to tie all those parallels together.”
Even as modern-day awareness of the treatment of native peoples or women complicate the once-simplified hero-villain dynamic of western tales, there is still something elemental about them. The unique place of the western within the American imagination – invoking self-invention and self-reliance – makes for part of its enduring appeal.
“I think the western is about people in harsh places trying to tame an unfriendly wilderness,” said Pine. “Because life is defined by struggle, it’s kind of the perfect microcosmic experience to explore that. ‘Here we are, struggling.’ It’s about people persevering and persevering and persevering.”
Set in a world of small-town diners, minor bank branches , wide-open plains and good people forced into a bad spot, there is something timeless about “Hell or High Water.” Yet the contours of its storytelling, talk of a reverse mortgage and mandatory retirement, also seem about right now.
“I think it is unequivocally a modern day Western,” said Sheridan. “I don’t know what else you would call it.”
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