If there’s such a thing as an easygoing thriller, then “Hell or High Water” is it. The stakes may be steep, but the characters can seem more nonchalant than nervous. Maybe it’s as simple as the heat: In the roasted landscape of West Texas, where this cops-and-robbers tale plays out, nothing moves faster than it has to.
That also goes for the adrenaline that the film’s hard-pressed thieves, Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), summon whenever their early-morning bank heists turn sticky. Grabbing only small-denomination bills from small-town branches of Texas Midland, the men are brothers whose plan — revealed over time in slow drips of casual conversation — turns out to be smarter and more complicated than we initially suspect. They’re trying to salvage something from a miserable childhood with no-count parents, neither of whom (for very different reasons) is around to notice.
Who does take heed is Marcus (a smashing Jeff Bridges), an imperturbable Texas Ranger kicking the doorstep of retirement. A tough old bird with a seen-it-all manner and smoked-’em-all drawl, Marcus and his Mexican-Comanche deputy (Gil Birmingham) exchange affectionately racist insults with gruff familiarity. Their jousting, like most of the film’s dialogue, has a verve and tongue-tickling texture (the screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan) that tells us more about the characters than any amount of exposition.
Furnished with faces as beaten as the vehicles the brothers drive and discard, “Hell or High Water” is a chase movie disguised as a western. Its humor is as dry as prairie dust (“Y’all are new at this, I’m guessin’,” remarks an unruffled bank employee, wryly observing the robbers’ unrefined technique), and its morals are steadfastly gray. The setting seems frozen in time, but the economic decline it showcases could not be more contemporary. As the brothers head toward Oklahoma, the resigned ranchers and deserted strip malls they encounter speak to a vanishing way of life, their journey becoming a parable of corporate exploitation and bleed-them-dry greed.
Proving an unexpectedly good fit for the material, the British director David Mackenzie was chosen on the strength of his previous feature, “Starred Up” (2014). But the sense of decline and drift that infuses “Hell or High Water” has more in common with his ferociously bleak 2003 drama, “Young Adam,” whose hero (played by Ewan McGregor) shares Toby’s broody inwardness. And Mr. Pine, in a quietly watchful performance (no Captain Kirk joshing here), gives Toby a cagey cleverness that allows Mr. Foster to shine as his gleefully lawless accomplice.
Photographed in New Mexico by the incomparable Giles Nuttgens, what will become Toby’s bid for redemption unfolds on a sweating canvas of baked yellow and pitiless gold. Women are glimpsed, and even given the occasional chewy line — both Katy Mixon and the great Margaret Bowman gladden as magnificently sassy diner waitresses — but this is a movie about man’s work. Like the similarly titled song by T. Graham Brown, it’s about showing up and standing firm.
“Hell or High Water” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Sprayed bullets and spilled brains. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.