Hell or High Water is comfort food cinema, above all else: whatever one might say about its level of execution (which is quite exceptionally high), one cannot say that it's at all surprising. It's a neo-Western for neo-Western lovers, a lean character study of Texan poverty told with wiry masculinity of the sort that, had it been made in the early 1970s, would be the secret favorite movie of every 60-something white guy ever. And by all means, I would rather we had more movies on the '70s model, and so much the better if they are as fine, confidently put over as this.

The film is your basic "outlaws in the U.S. Southwest as proxy for the state of American culture" number: there are the Howard brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), and they are in bad straits; the nature of why, exactly, this is so left secret for a little bit, but it's absolutely not a secret that they're at the end of their financial ropes, and we can guess that it has something to do with Texas Midlands Bank, since much ado is made about how their robberies are all at branches of that statewide chain. We learn about the Howards mostly by watching them: Toby, the younger brother, is the more cautious and sensible, and clearly the more morally-grounded, while Tanner is the hotheaded loose cannon, since there needs always to be a hotheaded loose cannon. But even Toby's not exactly nice, and the film's careful way of humanising him is very deliberate about making us feel sorry for him without being particularly impressed by the choices he's made about where to get his money (in one of the best scenes on Taylor Sheridan's enormously good screenplay - one of the most literate things to come out of the American film industry in 2016 - Toby earnestly entreats his son to believe the horrible things that the boy is going to hear about him in the news, and for God's sake don't turn out the same way). And this is part of the genius of the film: it takes the "romantic outlaw" tropes of, to name just the most obvious of Hell or High Water's many cinematic forebears, Bonnie and Clyde, and strips away part of the romance.

Set against them, though in the proper order of things they only meet near the end, are a pair of Texas Rangers, the impeccably grizzled Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), mere weeks away from retirement, and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). They are a sardonic, colorful pair, constantly on edge with each other (Hamilton's generally smug demeanor and constantly stream of racially charged jokes towards Parker, a Native American, do not at all help with this tension), but generally effective as an odd couple of strangers in the strange land of rural Texas. One of the most fascinating touches in the film is that when it centers on the brothers, everything feels deeply observational and accurate, a smart and potent bit of ethnographic realism; when it switches over to the rangers, it has the exaggerated quasi-surreal regionalism of a Coen brother film (a scene in which they attempt to order food at at T-bone steak restaurant is quite possibly the most Coenesque piece of writing in any non-Coen project ever). And this follows in the characters, as well: the Howards are written and performed with extraordinary clarity and precision, with the extraordinarily good Foster adding another to his list of practically perfect performances as the tightly-wound, almost manic Tanner, prone to flipping out in a mixture of rage and panic, and Pine showing off in what surely has to be the single best performance of his entire movie career. Hamilton, meanwhile, is a gruff caricature, who gets all of the film's most florid dialogue ("This guy, he wouldn't know God if He crawled up his pant leg and bit him on the pecker"), and who provides Bridges with a chance to effectively reprise his Rooster Cogburn from True Grit (or even more to the point, a chance to fix what he was trying to do in R.I.P.D., but I don't suppose that Bridges nor anybody else really wants to be reminded that R.I.P.D. exists). This is perhaps the only real disappointment of the film, that Bridges is so content to rehash old work, and as a result turn out the only one of the major performances that plays as a skillful version of a stock character, rather than an attempt to sneakily re-define that stock character.

For that is very much what the rest of the film is about: re-defining stock characters through performance and the screenplay's stated motivations for those characters; and then re-defining a stock genre through those same characters, as well as a heightened political focus (the film is, ultimately, about the abuses of the American banking industry, with the phrase "reverse mortgage" trotted out at one point in the way another film might use "the vampire's curse"). Sheridan's writing is the driving force behind this, and it's all pretty great: the regionalism; the crisp, writerly dialogue; the concise, focused sketching of characters through well-chosen clichés that add up to remarkable detail and precision; and the stunning ending, which quietly and casually leaps forward in time to suggest a strange rapprochement between two decent men who seem ready and willing to chase each other to Hell and back for no real reason other than a sense that things still aren't right, in a world that's not ever going to be right.

Which isn't to say that the visual craftsmanship is deficient in some way, it's just somewhat ordinary. Mackenzie's direction is mostly terse, very much in a Don Siegel mode, with some poetic flourishes at key moments: the opening shot, which slowly turns around a parking lot to let us soak in the sense of small-town Texas quietude, before positioning the robber brothers as, in some ways, simply one more element of the place, rather than an aberration; or the way that certain character's final appearance onscreen comes in the form of an impossibly long, static take that simply sits and watches and lets us consider how he got to that point. Giles Nuttgen's cinematography is outstandingly beautiful, but in the way that a lot of movies shot in the Southwest are beautiful (most of Hell or High Water was shot in New Mexico, which is frankly a more picturesque state than Texas), with lots of yellows and yellowed-out blues in the maybe slightly overly-processed color palette. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is great, to be fair; nodding in the direction of Western myth while doing something much more modernist

Anyway, it is a straightforward movie but not at all a simple one; it is quite dense, quite smart, and quite rewarding in all the best ways, full of perfect character moments, and just tense enough that it registers as a thriller, but even-handed enough that we can be upset when bad things happen to both the criminals and the cops (as they do, more or less simultaneously, in a beautifully sad little moment). As I've said other times about other movies, it wouldn't seem exceptionally good in a time when well-written movies about interesting adult characters were commonplace, but we do not live in that time, and that's why it does seem exceptionally good right now.