- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The vastness of Texas — mountains, plains, valleys and dryness — stretches in all directions. A lone lawman surveys the foreboding setting, figuring out how he will catch the outlaw, his lip set and determined.

Except this time, it’s not Tommy Lee Jones; rather it’s Jeff Bridges, who stars as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger out to solve a series of bizarre robberies in the barrenness of West Texas in “Hell or High Water,” opening Friday.

Mr. Bridges, a veteran of too many films to name, is up against a pair of desperate brothers in Toby (Chris Pine of “Star Trek” fame) and the unstable Tanner (Ben Foster, in a tour de force performance), who are pulling off the robberies as a way to save their family property from being taken from them. It’s appropriate for a dark world, where there are seemingly no heroes.

“As a filmmaker, I’m always drawn to stories which are not black and white in terms of their moral shades, so one of the elements I was interested in of this film was this thing that I call ‘redemptive criminality,’ where good people do bad things for good reasons,” said director David Mackenzie, a British filmmaker who brought his auteur sensibilities across the Atlantic.

“I think there’s something really interesting about that balance, and that is definitely an area of attraction for me as a filmmaker,” Mr. Mackenzie said.

Similarly, when asked by The Washington Times if the story was perhaps “too American,” Mr. Mackenzie shook off the notion, saying that its themes of brotherhood and of moral duality are indeed universal.

The awesome landscapes of “Hell or High Water” — with New Mexico subbing in for Texas — are brilliantly captured on film by English cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. Multitalented Australian musician Nick Cave contributed to the score, making the creative team even more international.

“Sicaro” writer Taylor Sheridan wrote the new film. Mr. Sheridan is also an actor, having portrayed Deputy Chief David Hale on the series “Sons of Anarchy.”

“Hell or High Water,” he said, offered him the opportunity to tell a tale of his home state, calling it “a love poem” to Texas despite its often-brutal material.

“People in Texas are such fighters and, one way or another, they have been fighting for land, for right or for wrong, for centuries,” Mr. Sheridan said. “The history of Texas has been a repeating pattern of conquest and assimilation. I’ve seen it, and I’ve also seen that one thing no one can ever seem to beat is the bank. So the bank has become an umbrella symbol for all the ways that West Texas has become a way of life that is now largely for the wealthy, and for all the ways in which it has become nearly impossible for some people to carve out a future there.”

Using that as a starting point, Mr. Sheridan began crafting a script about bank robber brothers who are in fact robbing one bank to pay back another.

The Lone Star State is known for its fierce sense of independence, perhaps no more so than when it comes to gun rights. At one point in the film, the brothers attempt to rob a bank being patronized by an older man who happens to be carrying a firearm.

It strikes a chord any way you choose to look at it. On one hand, a citizen applies his Second Amendment right to defend himself. On the other hand, the bank robbers have perhaps too easy access to firearms of their own to stick up the joint.

“Even in [a] big robbery, things don’t move lightning-fast because, for this film, it was not just about the gun battles but about watching the reactions of Toby and Tanner,” said Mr. Nuttgens, the director of photography.

Mr. Bridges said in a statement that he was drawn to the material for its moral ambiguity as well.

“You are never quite sure who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, or who you’re rooting for,” the Oscar-winner said. “We all tend to judge each other’s motives in life, but in this story, it’s a matter of point of view as to who’s right and who’s wrong — and maybe every character is a bit of both, and that is always intriguing.”

Said Mr. Mackenzie: “To me, what makes this film so exciting is that between all the genre elements, there is a reflection on themes of contemporary American life: on race, guns, the abuses of banks, the loss of the Old West and its values, the break up of families and society, the urge to take things into ones own hands.

“As an outsider, it was a privilege to try to somehow take a snapshot of the nation in this election year.”

Mr. Mackenzie told The Times of his fondness for 1970s cinema, wherein characters were allowed to be not exactly heroes or villains. Such was the draw of “Hell or High Water.”

“I think there’s something really interesting about that balance, and that is definitely an area of attraction for me as a filmmaker,” he said.

Mr. Mackenzie added that, seeing America, its landscapes and its values through foreign eyes added to his sense of accomplishment with his new film.

“I tried hard to make a film which feels as American as possible, and felt an obligation to be as respectful to the feeling of the country as I could,” the filmmaker said.

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