Now I say and the Texas Rangers trying to catch them because the film in the end is as much about the lawmen as the outlaws. Yes the film opens with a robbery, but the majority of its final moments focuses on the investigator. Jeff Bridges plays the investigator, Marcus Hamilton, who along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) goes about investigating a series of robberies. This is obviously a well worn role, particularly with the addition that Marcus is but a few weeks until retirement. Hell or High Water is a neo-western but Bridges was previously Oscar nominated for playing a lawman in the traditional western, True Grit. That was not a favorite performance of mine, and Bridges actually carries something similar over to his work here. That is his grumbly west accent, though he reduces it considerably here making feel far more natural to the character, time and place. Although both characters are lawmen, Bridges's approach diverges greatly from that earlier performance, in his portrayal of Marcus.
Again with the whole setup being that this is going to be Marcus's last case this might seem similar to Tommy Lee Jones's work in No Country For Old Men, a film this one is often compared to, despite being very different in terms of theme and tone. The comparison of the two lawful characters is particularly mistaken as Jones's Sheriff Bell has become spent working the job where that's not the case for Marcus. Bridges from his first scene importantly adds this certain energy about the man when he hears about the case. I rather love the approach as he's not tired to hear of another crime, rather he's kind of excited about getting something to do. Bridges brings a real enthusiasm to the role suggesting that Marcus very much enjoys being a lawman. In the scenes where Marcus investigates what happened at the bank there is a real comfort that Bridges brings. He not only gives the sense of the wisdom that Marcus has garnered over the year, but also the sense of ease as he does his duty with. Bridges presents a man who is most home when he's tracking down law breakers.
The film is presented as dueling stories with two sets of duos. The brothers, and the two Texas Rangers. Although the story moves forward in both it also fleshes out the relationship of each pair. On the law side with have Bridges's Marcus and his "supportive" friend of Birmingham's Alberto. The two are great together because what they offer is years of an old friendship in the perfect chemistry they have together. Honestly these scenes might not have worked at all if you did not believe their relationship. After all Marcus spends much of the time riffing on Alberto in every way he can think of including make various racial jokes about his Mexican and Comanche heritage. Every word spoken between them and just every reaction feels just so genuine with both actors. The effortlessness of it is all key in that Bridges technically doesn't exactly sugarcoat the insults by any margin, but it is balanced so well by Birmingham's reactions of just a slight smile and a head shake. In turn Bridges matches that by portraying only a real joy in Marcus when Alberto manages a good comeback or insult himself.
There is rich history established by both actors and you just feel it in every moment they have together. Although there is never a "you know I love yah you big lug moment", the real love between the two is just an unsaid truth. Bridges and Birmingham in turn actually really make the more philosophical dialogue of the film also work. In that they both essentially find any tone works because of how real the friendship feels and just breaking off into any given discussion seems normal. They don't only make them come about in a honest way though but it helps to ensure some real gravitas to these conversations. Whether it is Marcus pondering on a group of cowboys actually alone in the world, or Alberto pondering on the way it seems one group just merely steals everything from another, they earn them. They never come off as too much because of the conviction in their delivery but also in the reaction of each man understanding the other. Although they can just as easily be more than a little humorous such as with Bridges's annoyed breakdown of a television preacher, against Birmingham's portrayal of Alberto's exasperated reaction to essentially being preached at himself. They are such an endearing pair.
The main story is never forgotten, and I love the way Bridges's work so effectively attaches why it seems personal to him. As Marcus talks about potential retirement opportunities with Alberto. Bridges is great as there is no future in his eyes as he speaks about how none of the ideas really are suitable to him. What's so good though is that Bridges does not depict this as depression for Marcus rather it's simply not something that will suit him. Bridges gives us Marcus as someone who just really was meant always to be a lawman. There is one particularly pivotal moments when Marcus jokes about getting killed in a gunfight in order to die in a what he describes as a blaze of glory. Again Bridges's delivery of this is key in that it is technically more than half joking, but Bridges also carefully doesn't deliver it as though this is some suicidal death wish. Bridges brings this pride in it, as he knows something like this won't happen, but that he knows what he's doing now is the only thing he can connect with. This is only reinforced when it seems they might have figured out the robbers' plan, as Bridges brings such an earnest thrill of a man doing not only what he's good at but also what he loves to do.
Eventually all of this leads to two showdowns, the first being with Tanner in a sniper's position, acting as a distraction for Toby to get away. Marcus and Alberto arrive on the scene where Alberto is shot and killed by Tanner. Bridges's reaction is absolutely devastating as you see the years of friendship in his face as he writhes in anguish looking down at his dead friend. I have to say what the two actors did makes this scene all the more potent, and knowing the end result only made it hit me all the harder upon second viewing. Marcus though is forced to react quickly in order to stop Tanner, getting into a duel of sorts by flanking him at another sniper's position. Bridges is downright amazing in the scene. In the moment he portrays the physical exhaustion of the climb to reach the position, the violent anger at the man who killed his friend as pulls the triggers, then even the thrill of his accomplishment after he successfully avenges Alberto, Bridges though in the moment of triumph so brilliantly then breaks this into such a terrible sadness as he shows that once again he is only left with the loss of his friend. Quite honestly in that moment Bridges does more to realize the hollowness of revenge through a performance, than some actors that have an entire film do. The film still has one more showdown, between the two lead characters of the film, as a now retired Marcus goes to confront Toby who he's sure was the mastermind behind the robberies. Bridges is outstanding in this scene. Although no blood is spilled, and the actual direction of the scene is fairly low key you could cut the tension with a knife. The actors provide it offering such intensity with Bridges so quietly realizing Marcus's disgust towards Toby's since his actions indirectly caused Alberto's death. I love the way Bridges handles the scene as he presents the "Sheriff" as he has this assurance in front of Toby exhibiting a confidence fitting for a man with a real sense of justice. Bridges doesn't simplify it though as he carries an underlying nervousness in his being. Bridges suggests in this that Marcus is contemplating in his mind whether or not to take action. They do not exchange gunfire but they do exchange words with almost as much power ending with veiled threats that they will trade more than words at a later date. Bridges is incredible as he gives the strength to Marcus's words as he returns the offer to "give peace" to Toby, but also infuses it with this bleak pathos in his eyes showing that this is all Marcus has left to look forward to in his life. This is a phenomenal performance by Jeff Bridges. He transcends the trope of the old law man, elevating it to another level to give such a vivid and powerful depiction of man, not just the idea of one.