Fall films with Oscar potential are trickling into theaters, in advance of the rush before the Dec. 31 finish line. Home viewers can get a jump on awards season with Jeff Bridges’ critically lauded performance in the modern-day western “Hell or High Water,” now available for purchase via video on demand after a summer theatrical run.
Bridges practically has locked up his seventh Academy Award nod (he won a lead-actor Oscar for 2009’s “Crazy Heart”) for his supporting, elegiac turn as a Texas lawman chasing a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) in this gripping film directed by Englishman David Mackenzie and written by Texan native Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”).
Bridges, 66, is in the midst of an extended, well-deserved renaissance (he also was nominated for his take on the John Wayne role in the Coen brothers’ 2010 “True Grit” remake). Well-deserved because his status as one of America’s all-time greats finally is being acknowledged after long being obscured by his deceptively understated acting style.
Bridges possesses the gift of looking relaxed in front of the camera while also revealing his characters’ complex layers. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton’s top layer is wryness, as he shows in trading insults with his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham, also relaxed and charismatic). Bridges and Birmingham lend a lived-in quality to this running conversation that suggests it goes back further than just the days they spend together in a pickup chasing the bank robbers across parched West Texas.
Bridges slowly will reveal Hamilton’s interior life, a landscape as lonesome as the oil-well-dotted, dusty fields left in the wake of the region’s boom-or-bust economy. Since Hamilton’s wife passed away, Alberto is his best friend. His next closest companion is his relentless drive to catch bad guys.
Or, in the case of the criminal brothers, one bad guy – an ex-con played by Foster with a feral zest – and his fundamentally decent younger sibling, who needs funds to save the family ranch. Predatory lenders tricked the brothers’ late mother into a risky second mortgage. The pair are hitting just enough banks – taking small, loose, untraceable bills – to settle the debt.
Pine fights his matinee-idol-handsomeness’s incongruity within this scruffy setting with the help of inelegant facial scruff, tight Wranglers and a performance that is equal parts nervousness and soulfulness. On edge throughout the robberies, his character seems at peace on the modest family homestead he wants to leave to his children, from whose mother he is divorced. Pine holds his own with Bridges during a scene full of menace masked by cordiality.
But mostly you remember the film for Bridges’ performance. Kind of how Academy members likely will.
Hell or High Water
Available for purchase (but not yet rental) for $14.99 through Amazon and iTunes; $15.99 for cable On Demand.