One way you know it's August at the multiplex is that the many unextraordinary virtues of the thoughtful crime drama Hell or High Water — a plot that kicks off in the first scene instead of the fourth or fifteenth; "heroes" and "villains" equally deserving of our empathy, and who come into focus through behavior rather than dialogue; a palpable sense of place; basic A-leads-to-B-causing-C narrative competence — make it feel like the pinnacle of cinematic artistry. In the picture's opening seconds, Scottish director David Mackenzie's camera drifts over a wall bearing a spray-painted op-ed: "Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us." The 101 minutes that follow essentially comprise a feature-length Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen song, their brilliance lying in the details.
Embracing small heist-film cliches while cannily dodging big ones, Hell or High Water is a sort of present-day mashup of Bonnie and Clyde, No Country for Old Men, and Heat. It follows two thirty-something brothers on a campaign of small-time bank jobs across West Texas. Chris Pine, hungry to prove starship captaincy is not his only skill (it's not), is the handsome and smart one. Ben Foster is the loud one, a hot-tempered ex-con whose impulsiveness seems destined to kill them both.
They're desperate, as we'll learn, but still cautious: They choose their targets strategically, and strike early in the morning, before those banks fill up with concealed-carrying customers. (This is the Lone Star State, after all, though the movie was shot in New Mexico). They take only the loose drawer money — no bill-bundles that could contain a dye pack, and they certainly aren't going to hang around trying to open a vault. Crime flicks far more fetishistic and lurid than this one have attended to this sort of how-to; what these two know about robbing banks they probably learned from movies. But this one has something up its sleeve.
Hunting the brothers are a pair of Texas Rangers. Jeff Bridges stops just shy of reprising his phlegm-choked role as Sheriff Rooster Cogburn from the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit, playing a slow-moving but conscientious lawman on what is — of course — his last case before retirement. He affectionately peppers his stoic partner, Gil Birmingham, with racial invective. "You know I'm part Mexican," Birmingham says after one especially artful indictment of his Native-American heritage. "I'll get to that," Bridges croaks.
Tellingly, when these men argue for real, the epithets disappear. Hot and bored on their all-day stakeouts, their ritual antagonism eventually becomes a deeper conversation about their ancestry and the history of the ghost towns whose banks are being held up. It's in these scenes that Hell or High Water becomes something more substantial than just a well-told procedural. Also in the gently comic, perfectly cast vignettes where the Rangers interview witnesses to the brothers' crimes — and order lunch from a grizzled waitress at least as hostile as any felon they've ever collared.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan previously wrote Sicario, an intense thriller set amid the quagmire of the drug war as it's fought on the U.S.-Mexico border. Hell or High Water replaces that film's crackling menace with a more elemental sense of tragedy. Australian goth-rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis supplied the mournful score, though there are songs from great chroniclers of Americana like Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch, too. They're of a piece with the pith and observance of the story.
My only complaint is reserved for whomever is responsible for that albatross of a moniker Hell or High Water: You do no favors to a movie this attentive and specific when you slap it with a title that's both trite and so vague it approaches abstraction. Back when this thing showed up on 2012's "Black List" of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, it was called Commancheria. By any other name, it isn't quite as sweet. Even if it still smells like a rose.