Few would argue that the big open skies and arid landscapes of Texas have produced some of the best classic and modern westerns.
As far back as the 1950s and 1960s, which produced stars such as James Dean (Giant) and Paul Newman (Hud and Cool Hand Luke), the characteristic Texan of contemporary times has been lean and laconic.
More recently, Peter Bogdanovich (1971’s The Last Picture Show) and Terrence Malick (1978’s Days of Heaven and 2011’s The Tree of Life) have boosted these anti-heroes to cult status.
The latest in this canon is Hell or High Water (Madman), which is set in small-town West Texas where you are likely to find a bank in the main street but not much else.
As someone once said when asked why he robbed banks — “because that’s where the money is”.
Money is still scarce, times are still hard and banks remain at the centre of this updating of Bonnie and Clyde, the couple who famously robbed banks in North Texas during the Depression.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is credited with Sicario, an action-packed thriller set along the Mexican border. But this time the narrative is subtler and the fuses longer.
Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) start robbing small branches of the bank that holds the mortgage over their family ranch.
Foster is just out of jail and is trigger-happy to put his life at risk again to help out as foreclosure threatens after their mother’s death.
By contrast, Pine is the laconic one, ruing the break up of his family, but seeing no alternative to chancing his fate in the hands of his brother.
After some initial successes, they are eventually pursued by a wily Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges), who correctly figures these holdups are not random crimes.
Bridges repeats his old-timer performance as a down-at-heel guitar plucker in Crazy Heart (2009) trying to make a go of a new romance.
These two narrative threads unravel slowly, testing how far audiences will indulge in stereotypes such as the racist cop — Bridges maintains a patter against his Native American-Mexican partner (Gil Birmingham) – and pickup-driving vigilantes, who are itching for a gun fight.
The banks also provide the main theme that upends notions of where the line is between crime and justice. The poster slogan “justice isn’t a crime” is taken literally, at least when it comes to robbing banks.
This is new territory for English-born director David Mackenzie, whose Perfect Sense (2011) was a sophisticated urban sci-fi thriller about an epidemic that gradually deprives people of their sense.
This is about as far away as you can get from a Texas where jobs are as scarce as hope itself. Thoroughly recommended if you like a steady buildup in plot, interesting characters and a climax worth waiting for. Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16 (violence and offensive language). 101 minutes