Some images just conjure the traditions of the American West, such as that of lawmen chasing bandits across a barren plain. Even with modern additions like 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 US-Mexico border. He is now making his directing debut with Wind River, another contemporary lawmen tale he wrote.
“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.
“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.
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.
“I think the western is about people in harsh places trying to tame an unfriendly wilderness,” Pine said. “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,” Sheridan said. “I don’t know what else you would call it.”
Hell Or High Water opens on Nov 17. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Mark Olsen