Raising a project that resembles a decent cops-and-robbers B-movie into A-level entertainment isn’t easy. It requires crackling storytelling and indelible acting. “Hell or High Water” delivers all of that, but only one advantage is clear on its promotional posters.
It stars Jeff Bridges. (The movie also stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster, but come on.)
The latest entry in Bridges’ storied career casts him as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, an ornery lawman hunting two brothers on a crime spree in one-stoplight towns. A flawed, caustic character, Marcus personally represents the Western’s proverbial clash between good, decent men and their counterparts. He’s impressive, especially during the thriller’s violent showdowns. And he taunts his Mexican-American Indian partner with nonstop ethnic banter like a high school bully inflicting wedgies on an underclassman.
In a phone conversation last week, Bridges said his wisecracking family had readied him to play a part like that since childhood, giving him a strong parallel between his life and the role.
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“I come from a family of teasers,” he said, beginning with his mother’s father. “My grandfather, Fred Simpson, he’s from Liverpool and he used to tease all of us terribly. And my big brother Beau teased me terribly when I was growing up.
“It’s interesting, because it can be very hurtful and painful when you’re on the other end of it. But you learn as you go along that teasing can also be a display of intimacy and affection. ‘I know you so well that I know all your buttons.’ And that knowing is all about loving you, too. That was something I kind of paralleled about this character. I related to that very much.”
He also prepared for the role with his long library of Western roles since childhood, dressing up in cowboy costumes for as long as he can remember.
“My father, Lloyd Bridges, he was in a lot of Westerns when I was growing up, like ‘High Noon.’ Whenever he would come home from work dressed up in his cowboy outfit, I would just love that. Put on the hat and vest and boots and run around and all of that. So I’ve been pretty fond of Westerns. Whenever I get a chance to be in a big one, I love to come to that party. It’s great.”
While shooting the latest, he said, he built a relationship with a Texas Ranger adviser to the film, “hanging out with him on set to soak up some of his Rangerness. That’s part of being an actor, you just kind of soak up those guys when you’re around them. It’s like a flavor or a smell, just being in their presence.”
The character’s pendulum swings between harassing humor and serious life-or-death gunplay. But it wasn’t a difficult contrast to balance. “It felt easy. It’s kind of like life to me, the ups and downs. The acting’s all about reflecting that stuff. It really rang true to me when I read it. Seemed like the screenwriter knew what he was talking about, that experience.”
Writer Taylor Sheridan, who penned last year’s riveting crime procedural “Sicario,” learned a lot from his uncle, a Texas-based U.S. marshal, Bridges said.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity about right and wrong,” he said. “You’ve got these guys robbing banks, which is traditionally a wrong thing to do. You’ve got these banks loaning money to people, knowing full well they can’t pay it back, to get their property that might have oil on it. That attracted me, too.” What motivates the criminals “is more than anything love of their families and the intention to be sure they’re safe in the future.”
For Bridges, a high point of the shoot was building a rapport with Gil Birmingham, who plays his much-maligned partner.
“We both play guitar, so we just jammed and had a ball. Making music is a form of intimacy that really knots you together. The director (David Mackenzie) told us to drive around for three hours and he’d film it. It’s digital now, so you never have to stop, and it was the longest improvisation I’ve ever done. It went on forever. Very little of it’s in the movie, but maybe they’ll include it in the DVD.”
Many fans consider his iconic performance as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski his signature role. Does he ever wish that a film like his latest or “Starman” or “The Fisher King” or “Fearless” or “Crazy Heart” or “True Grit” would surpass the Coens’ classic? Or his work as an author, musician, singer, painter, sculptor and photographer?
“I like any of those, but I’ll tell you, I’m so proud of ‘Lebowski’ that I’m proud to be part of that one,” he said. “Those brothers know how to make movies. I don’t think I’d want to be known for anything else. I’m proud to be associated with that.”
The Dude abides.