It's somewhat ironic that viewers tired of blockbuster fare might find the antidote in Hell or High Water, a film starring Captain Kirk himself. Chris Pine headlines this latest offering from director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), which features a screenplay written by Taylor Sheridan (coming off of a much lauded first script for last year's crime thriller Sicario). The story follows brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) as they drive across West Texas robbing banks. Tanner, a charismatic dolt, has long resigned himself to a life of crime, and is looking to help Toby raise enough money to prevent the local bank from seizing his deceased mother's ranch property (which he hopes to pass down to his sons).
Their crimes are off the federal government's radar, so aging small-town cop Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) takes up the case, seeing it as his last great assignment before a quiet, boring retirement spent whiling his days away on his front porch. Hamilton brings his stoic deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) along for the ride, and from there, the chase is on.
The movie's lamentations regarding the importance and frustrations of family are wrapped up in beautifully evocative portrayals of Lone Star towns and its wry denizens, many of whom bemoan the vicious cycle that allows them to be trapped in poverty by the big banks (which hover over the proceedings like heavy storm clouds). The script is peppered with humor as dry as the Texas plains themselves, which blends well with the grim and gritty nature of the central crime spree. Bridges expertly establishes Hamilton as a sort of cuddly ballbuster, and he and Pine serve as opposite sides of the film's beating heart. Meanwhile, Foster, who also did great work in the 2007 Western 3:10 to Yuma, brings to life an unrepentant dolt with a hair-trigger temper and a dangerous and spontaneous love of thrills.
The brothers' attempts to lift themselves out of dire economic straits compellingly intersect with Hamilton's efforts to come to terms with the end of his career, with the sparse Texas landscape providing a scenic backdrop for their struggles. Gorgeous shots of the surrounding environment alternate with simmering action sequences, creating a compelling dichotomy that manages to keep each scene crackling with tension and solemnity. Even the quieter moments are elevated by a lively, versatile score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a duo famed for creating lush soundtracks that often pair well with similarly beautiful outdoor imagery.
Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted one of the best movies of the summer with Hell or High Water, which feels like a flesh-and-blood response to its CGI cinematic neighbors -- it tells a story in which the life-or-death stakes are made more palpable by the lack of a straightforward villain. Bridges and Birmingham are delightful sparring partners in their scenes together; Pine does a superb job playing a man carrying the full weight of lifelong poverty on his shoulders; and Foster makes it impossible for us to take our eyes off of his unnerving brute, who can't help but expose his still raw heart during every step of his quest for soul-numbing adrenaline. Try to avoid the trailer for the film if possible before seeing it: This sprawling journey will be that much more rewarding.