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Friday, February 10, 2017

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

45 years after THE LAST PICTURE SHOW/’71, Jeff Bridges figuratively steps into the boots of Sam the Lion in this modest, but effective cops-and-robbers meditation. (Hard to believe Ben Johnson was a mere 53 when he played Sam; Bridges is 67.) Taylor Sheridan’s original script sets its leathery characters in today’s economically busted North Texas, but the mind-set goes back. Not so much to LAST PICTURE SHOW’s early ‘50, but to it’s filmmaking era of ‘70s indie cinema, when a police procedural could mosey along at a walking pace, even wear a social conscious on its sleeve. (It’s partly this sense of film culture nostalgia that’s getting the film overpraised; it works just fine without the critical oversell.) Ben Foster and, especially, Chris Pine give expert service as deadbeat brothers working a series of two-bit ‘teller-drawer’ bank robberies, raising just enough cash to pay off a series of loans, taxes, fines & child support to wash the slate clean and save their late mom’s ranch. Bridges is the about-to-retire Texas Ranger piecing the case together with Gil Birmingham’s sidekick of an officer. Together, they’re a working delight, with Bridges’ appalling racial slights tucked in, at once wounding & funny. Director David McKenzie takes a leap forward here, as if regulated by the Texas heat to stop forcing his material and enjoy the view, along with the stubbornly eccentric characters (leading & supporting) and letting the squalid land & lives speak for themselves. It’s the sort of project that’s drifting to cable these days. But what a relief to get it without filler bloating it up to ten episodes. A reminder of how much you can get done in 100 minutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Too bad the budget didn’t stretch far enough for 35mm film instead of whatever excellent digital system they used. You can almost taste the missing textural element.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, LAST PICTURE SHOW.

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