The most recent golden era of American cinema was the 1970s, when small gems such as “Charley Varrick,” “Payday,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” and “The Long Goodbye” were getting lost in the crowd because that period also saw the birth of the blockbuster ... you know, “Star Wars,” Jaws,” and the like.

“Hell or High Water” carries a mood that harkens back to those smaller films, and would have fit in perfectly if it was released in the mid-’70s. It’s a gritty bank robbery movie, set in West Texas, that puts forth a straightforward story of down-on-their-luck people who are in trouble with life and with the law, and get deeper into it while trying to figure a way out of it, and of the people on the side of the law who are trying to stop them.

The lawbreakers are introduced immediately, pulling off a nasty, no-nonsense bank robbery, which doesn’t go according to plan, then heading to another town for another one, which goes even less smoothly. They’re Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who hasn’t been able to catch a break, and owes his ex-wife a load of money in child support; and his older brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who’s been out of jail for about a year.

Aimless Toby, although relatively calmer than explosive Tanner, has a fiery side that peeks out when he’s being protective of his loser older brother. Yet Toby also harbors some resentment toward him because Toby’s been the good son, taking care of their dying mother while Tanner has remained absent of any family responsibilities. But when Toby gets the idea to rob banks in order to pay off their mom’s debts and catch up on that child support, and he presents it to Tanner — who says yes “because you asked” — their differences become clear. With guns in hand, Toby is the calmer of the two, while excitable Tanner is prone to yelling at tellers and unlucky bank customers.

Their plan is to stay under the radar, hit the drawers for just a few thousand bucks at a time, only take loose bills. The local cops realize that the FBI won’t be interested in such small potatoes, so it’s up to them to take care of this. Specifically it’s up to Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, doing his best Kris Kristofferson imitation), a laidback fellow who’s — Cliche Alert — three weeks from retirement, and his partner Alberto Parker (a terrific supporting performance from Gil Birmingham).

The film evolves from the action scenes of the robberies and getaways — a nice touch has the brothers stealing cars, then later burying them on their property — and the follow-up work by the Rangers — staying on the brothers’ trail, and questioning witnesses along to way — to a study of relationships. The brothers can be relaxed in each other’s company, but then turn on a dime and be at odds with each other; Pine and Foster are completely convincing as brothers. The two rangers have been working together so long, they’re like an old married couple.

There’s some terrific humor in the film, a gentle side coming both from the dialogue and from Bridges’ laconic delivery of it, and a wilder one in a restaurant scene where a waitress (Margaret Bowman) orders people what to order. David Mackenzie, with the assistance of veteran cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, beautifully captures a real sense of place, having most of the guys wear cowboys hats, and making New Mexico look just like West Texas.

The script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) is an excellent example of structure, pacing, character development, and storytelling. It brings in issues of racism against Mexicans and American Indians, along with an anti-big bank message, and looks at the problems created when states allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. The film ends on a quiet note, one featuring a lot of talk. It certainly finishes off the story, but goes to the credits with the idea that the closing dialogue will likely continue some time down the road.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“Hell or High Water”
Written by Taylor Sheridan; directed by David Mackenzie
With Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Rated R