Reel Dad: Hell or High Water — Human, humorous and humble

Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.
Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

The man views his horizon with the wisdom of awareness and the clarity of time.

As he considers an uncertain future, he admits what he has not accomplished in his work and the loneliness he battles in his life. While wondering how to make one last difference, he considers paths not pursued and options overlooked. He knows, at this moment, that time is his most valued currency. And he is running low.

In the fascinating new film Hell or High Water, Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges delivers a complex view of the realities of aging. His portrayal of a Texas Ranger nearing retirement reveals all the anxiety and aspiration this change can bring. With minimal dialogue and maximum expression, Bridges reaches back to more than 45 years of lessons from screen acting to bring this man to life. The actor uses his distinctive voice and memorable manner to make us believe in a man who lives the value of wisdom.

There is, in fact, a lot that is wise and smart about this film. Using a familiar framework – of brothers who rob banks in small towns – director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan create a compelling look at what drives people to change yet protect, wonder but resist. On one level, this tale of low-tech crime resembles moments of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, also about unsavory souls in rural West Texas. While the Coens examine what leads people to embrace greed, Mackenzie and Sheridan search for the positive reasons that people insist on doing the wrong things. As the brothers Tanner and Toby plan and execute a compelling crime spree through small banks in little towns, they use their criminal actions to fuel their good intentions. Though they don’t spend a lot of time explaining their reasons to themselves, they believe there is a higher purpose at work no matter how low the work can be.

Only when pursued by the equally driven lawman named Marcus – perfectly played by Bridges in another Oscar-worthy turn – do the brothers find themselves at odds with their actions. As the filmmakers follow people navigating different worlds, we see how pressure can bring out the worst in the good, and the best in the bad. And, while we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys at moments, we know that movies rarely let them win. Sheridan and Mackenzie wisely play with what we expect in the movies we see, the heroes we embrace, and the ideals we absorb. The moviemakers make us wonder how far we would go to protect those we love and the destiny we don’t know.

After a year of sequels and reboots, a mature film filled with complex ideas is a real movie delight. In a business where movies with small ideas keep getting bigger, filmmakers Mackenzie and Sheridan discover so much humanity to explore on screen. While Hell or High Water may not make us rush back to the movies to see anything, it does make us happy that some in the movie business continue to create what demanding audiences want to see.


Hell or High Water
  • Content: High. Moviemakers David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan create a fascinating look at how people in different places look for redemption.
  • Entertainment: High. What a welcome relief to absorb a thoughtful, meaningful film after a year filled with superficial entertainments.
  • Message: High. While totally absorbing as a movie, Hell or High Water has a lot to say about how people choose what matters at different stages in life.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about how to confront time, choices and temptations is time well spent.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time for a conversation about how they see the choices they can make.

(Hell or High Water is rated R for violence, language throughout and brief sexuality. The film runs 1 hour, 42 minutes.)

The Reel Dad rating: Five Popcorn Buckets.


The Reel Dad Salutes Jeff Bridges

From his first moments on camera – on the television adventure Sea Hunt starring his father Lloyd in the late 1950s  – Jeff Bridges has proven many times how his human approach to screen acting knows few limits. Without resorting to distracting technique, or relying on superficial expressions, Bridges makes every character feel real. And he’s been doing that for more than 45 years on the big screen. Here are a few of his many magical portrayals.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

As Duane, the young high school hero in a small Texas town, Bridges perfects the swagger that defines a way of life. He makes us believe this boy is too big for his britches and his town in a performance that brings the actor’s first Oscar nomination.

Fat City (1972)

Working with the great director John Huston, Bridges stretches his acting range to soar as a young boxer with big dreams. Before making this film, few in the business think this second generation member of Hollywood royalty has the chops for the long run. They are wrong.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

After scoring on film in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Bridges stuns the industry by securing a second Oscar nomination for a flamboyant role in this lightweight adventure from Clint Eastwood. He proves the performance, not the vehicle, matters.

Hearts of the West (1975)

Just when some wonder if Bridges can play comedy, he lets audiences know how funny he be in this delightful tale of dreams and realities in the Wild West. Between this and his role the same year in Ranch Deluxe, Bridges confirms his sense of humor.

Starman (1984)

After a collection of predictable roles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bridges creates unexpected excitement for his beautifully modulated turn as an alien with a wondrous heart. The Academy responds by rewarding him with a third Oscar nomination.

Jagged Edge (1985) and The Morning After (1986)

With these two entertaining thrillers, Bridges masters the mystery behind characters with more to hide than they willingly reveal. He also masters the art of making leading ladies – Glenn Close and Jane Fonda in these films – look properly terrified.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

At the time, many believe this will be the role that finally brings Bridges his Oscar. Despite the film’s good intentions, however, it turns out to be too heavy for many to absorb and a breathtaking performance gets lost in the shuffle.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Opposite his brother Beau, and the delightful Michelle Pfeiffer, Bridges shines as a second-rate musician with first-rate anxieties. While Beau may be the personality of the film, Jeff brings a brooding intensity that grounds the narrative in truth.

The Fisher King (1991)

While Robin Williams soars in an Oscar-nominated turn, Bridges makes this extreme comedy about human tragedy work. The actor’s terrific turn as a radio announcer – who learns how lives connect in unexpected ways – makes the film feel oh so real in every moment.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

This delicious fantasy from Joel and Ethan Cohen gives Bridges the definitive role of his career. All these years – and an Oscar – later he is still best known for his thrilling depiction of The Dude, a man mistaken to be a millionaire in a society that worships those who succeed.

Arlington Road (1999)

No Oscars are ever intended for this thriller that borrows from the headlines of the time to pit two aggressive thinkers (Bridges and Tim Robbins) against each other in a game of cat and terrorism mouse. Yes, this still works as a popcorn movie, no matter the holes in the plot.

The Contender (2000)

Bridges nabs yet another Oscar nomination for his fabulous take on a US President with a strong moral compass, an engaging sense of humanity and a hearty appetite. With Joan Allen as a turbulent political appointee, Bridges is the voice of reason in a torn political world.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Finally, on Oscar nomination number five, Bridges steps into the winner’s circle for this dynamic look at a country singer searching for a happy ending. As he brings a torn man to life through words and song, Bridges lets us know what a rare view he offers of how men can fear.

True Grit (2010)

With his sixth Oscar nod for this remake of the classic Western, Bridges joins an exclusive circle of Academy Award winners who get nominated the year after winning. As an iconic lawman, Bridges relishes the chance to create another memorable character.

No matter how many years, we continue to savor the wonder Jeff Bridges brings to his work. In every role, in each film, he makes us believe he is as excited to be in front of the camera as when he first appeared on the small screen with his dad.

See you at the movies.