Elsie (Dale Dickey) is a bank teller in this Texan small town who on arrival at her place of work this morning is grabbed by two masked men and forced inside to empty the drawers of loose notes. What they have not counted on, and what she is keen to point out, is that they are too early: there is no money available, it's in the safe and that won't be open until her boss gets here, so they will have to wait. She also calls them stupid, which the shorter one does not like at all, and makes her sit on the floor as they have decided they are not leaving without some cash. Ten minutes later, the Howard brothers, the elder Tanner (Ben Foster) and the younger Toby (Chris Pine), are speeding away from the scene of their crime, a few thousand dollars richer...
Only they will see hardly a penny of it, in Scottish director David Mackenzie's take on that strain of modern Western that had overtaken the traditional kind, keeping its archetypes and themes but presenting it in a contemporary setting. This had been popular ever since the nineteen-seventies had begun to outgrow the more usual version with horses and cowboys and six shooters, though examples reached back to Kirk Douglas battling the modern world in Lonely are the Brave in the sixties, and even Roy Rogers was not averse to including cars and gangsters in his matinee-filling escapades, so you could observe the trend had been a thing ever since the genre had become established.
You did not need to be Sam Peckinpah to perceive that the passing of the old ways into legend as the new ways supplanted them was rich pickings for a dramatic thriller, and works like this were very much indebted to his establishing of the rules of that form, but Mackenzie managed to bring something to Taylor Sheridan's script that spoke to the social realism of British film and television which complimented the highly American characters and milieu of Texas at its most wide open yet closed down for business. There was a definite social conscience to the Howard brothers and what had propelled them to their life of lawbreaking, and one which was extremely relevant to the twenty-first century.
The reason they were stealing from a particular bank chain was that was the one which they owed money to, or rather the debts on their late mother's ranch that they needed to pay off so that Toby's sons could inherit it and effectively never want for anything again now oil has been found there. This was the American Dream, to be wholly self-sufficient, but one which slipped through the fingers of just about everyone we saw here, who were all scraping by in an economy that was going through a recession and heading towards an apocalypse. The perspective that landscape offered the plot was keenly deployed, as it seemed sparsely populated with folks who looked lost in a global experience that had shipwrecked them in financial jeopardy without much to cling on to, and yet the Howards' drastic action still came across as not a natural reaction, but one more risky move.
Much of that was down to the fact that they were not going to get away with their plan so easily, if at all, as on their trail, in his last case before retirement, was Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, still headlining cult movies even at this late stage in his career. Here he imbued what could have been a typical hardnosed lawman role with great depth, as his banter with partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) showed; they rib each other, but there is great respect there which turns out to be unexpectedly touching in the latter stages of the story - basically everything you wanted from a mature Bridges performance, and Birmingham was rather excellent as well. Even the smallest supporting roles were essayed with a convincing, lived in quality thanks to Mackenzie and Sheridan's obvious care for what happens to them, creating one of the most vivid sets of believable characters of their type. As for the bad guys, Tanner was the bad 'un, but Toby had a thwarted decency that rendered his actions emotionally damaging even as he aimed for the opposite. Only the sense of the film manufacturing everything so carefully that the thriller element could have been stronger prevented it from really flying, but an intelligent, finely acted effort nonetheless. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.