A worthy entry to the genre, David Mackenzie’s gun-slinging villains are unforgettably epic

America loves its underdogs. Deeply ingrained in the national psyche, the archetype is a mainstay, offering social commentary as the heroes fight corrupt, repressive authority, be it the government or capitalist robber barons. And with the subprime mortgage crisis ravaging the heartland as much as any carpetbagger, it was only a matter of time before noble outlaws would again ride the silver screen, righting wrongs and taking the justice denied to them with smoking barrels. Nominated for four Oscars including Best Film, Hell or High Water ushers the romantic bandit into the 21st century.

Texas Elegy

Director David Mackenzie sets the tone early: Scrawled graffiti bitterly declares “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us” in the opening scene, and boarded-up main streets and billboards promising debt relief litter the majestic Texan landscape. Buoyed by an atmospheric score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and filled with quirky characters, nearly everyone has something to say about The Decline and Fall of The West.

But Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are willing to do more than lament. Feeling cheated after they’re driven into a bad mortgage to pay for their now-dead mother’s medical bills, the brothers engage in frontier justice: stick up the bank that’s foreclosing on them and settle their debts with the money taken from them in the first place. Leading the chase for these modern outlaws is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker; worn out and near retirement, Hamilton prefers to outthink his quarry rather than chase them all over the country. Like a fisherman, he knows patience trumps guts.

Born to Lose

The protagonists are a chip off the old-West block – rugged and taciturn, letting their actions speak for them. The Howard boys bicker, as brothers do, but resolve their issues largely in body language, talking as if charged by the word. The Rangers are chattier, but no better: Far too tough to express their feelings, they show their mutual appreciation by ribbing each other with constant insults.

Jeff Bridges draws on previous performances to craft a character who’s both laid back and relentless – The Big Lebowski meets True Grit. Chris Pine, previously known as Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek reboot, does much to dispel typecasting as “another pretty face,” saying more with a furrowed brow than others manage with their entire bodies.

The film belongs to the habitually underrated Ben Foster though. Playing a prodigal son fresh out of prison, he’s an unpredictable time bomb, reaching Cagney-esque intensity. Deeply troubled beneath his cheerful, manic demeanor, he’s doomed and knows it. And while he admits he wouldn’t have the brains to pull this caper without his brother, he may be the wiser of the two: While the younger Howard still hopes against hope they’ll beat the spread, Tanner already knows how this will play out. Just like their forebears Bonnie and Clyde or the James brothers, there’s only one way this can end.

Into the sunset

Hell or High Water is at times predictable, but offers just enough twists to keep things fresh. Notably, the fantastic closing scene tops the climactic shootout with a final showdown between Hamilton and Toby Howard. Fought entirely with glances and laconic dialogue, it’s as unexpected as it is powerful. In the end, it’s a timeless story: The guns are automatic, the mustangs and broncos made in Detroit, but the song remains the same. Sure, the plot may run on rails – but so does a rollercoaster. And this is one helluva ride.

Starts May 19, Filmcasino