Director: David MacKenzie
Like 2014’s critical hit Nightcrawler, director David MacKenzie’s (Starred Up) double buddy heist neo-western is the kind of mid-budget, high-class B-movie that critics frequently complain Hollywood rarely distributes any more. These days you either have to be a superhero movie with the kind of financial backing that you can’t fail, or a low-budget hit like Paranormal Activity where the production costs are so low the risk is acceptable. But now, after a critically disappointing summer, Mackenzie’s flick – with a lean script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan – has come along just at the right time; confidently satisfying genre expectations with enough flair that the familiar feels freshened up. The chassis of this beast might be recognisable, but the engine within is well-oiled.
The narrative and script are stripped down to the bone here, leaving us with a film reminiscent of the kinds of tough-guy, 70s thrillers like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Driver. Our toughs in this tale are a pair of mismatched late-30s West Texans called Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who are not only are bank-robbers but also brothers. The opening scene of the film is actually their first bank heist, which, although clearly the work of a pair of rank amateurs, has enough specificity to it that we are clued in that we are dealing with a certain degree of forethought here. Masked and wearing gloves, the pistol-waving duo specially only demand loose bills in the drawers, and take no longer than 3 minutes doing so. The bank they’ve hit is a small West Texan local branch in a nowheresville neighbourhood, and they’ve hit it early: no crowds or security to get in the way. Mackenzie’s film sees more interesting details sprinkled into the mix as the later stages from the heist play out: the brothers have bought the car cheap, and for cash, and dump it in a pre-dug hole, burying it using a contraction rig. They get away with it…this time.
But already we smell trouble brewing: Tanner seems way too trigger-happy (this is the kind of role Ben Foster excels at) whilst the quieter, brooding Toby (Chris Pine, dialling his inner Kirk down) is the one always wincing at his brother’s propensity to get carried away, berating him for taking chances. But Mackenzie’s film reveals later on that Pine’s character isn’t quite the baby in the woods here. For one thing, he is actually the brains of the outfit, and it was he that called Tanner for aid after years of no contact. Not only that, but his motives are not about self-enrichment, but the goal is to gather enough bills in a mad dash of bank raids so as to pay off the outstanding debt his recently-deceased mother still owes to a hungry, bad-loan dealing bank. Without the money in hand in a week’s time, the family farm, run-down but clearly still of huge importance to Toby, will go under. Yet director Mackenzie and writer Sheridan add in a later revelation that adds more layers to Toby’s character, suggesting deeper reserves of both cunning and desperation. Both the script, and Pine’s performance, make him a more ambiguous character the longer the brothers keep up their scheme, especially as, being the instigator of this crime spree, all the casualties are on him.
Pine and Foster make an effective crime duo, but what good are a pair of bank busters without a soon-to-retire lawman on their tail, wearily gearing up for one last case? Pursuing the brothers across the blighted Texan badlands is veteran, seen-it-all Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering Native American deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Having this opposing duo in the mix adds more tension to an already taught film, as we know soon enough these pairs will clash. But Mackenzie keeps us waiting for this encounter, content to let Bridges and Birmingham spar off each other as they drive around West Texas’s forlorn towns and faded cafes, trying to get ahead of the bank robbers. Marcus and Albert have a relationship as odd as Toby and Tanner. Marcus is clearly at a don’t-give-a-shit stage of his career and life, and his modus operandi with his partner seems to involve mildly racially bating him every five minutes. For his part Alberto can’t seem to settle on if he will be glad to see the back of his partner, or if he will miss him like crazy. Like Foster, Bridges here is playing a character he could knock off in his sleep, not too far removed from the curmudgeonly, salty marshal in True Grit. But you are not going to hear to Smoke Screen complain about letting Bridges do what he does best, and there is a painful quality in the way he is unafraid to show just how rusty the joints are getting in his sixth decade.
Aside from some deep-fried, hardboiled dialogue, flashes of black humour and some genuinely tense, realtime heist sequences, Mackenzie’s film offers up some striking cinematography, and is rich in the incidental detail of a land where everyone speaks in thick accents, men wear huge hats with no reservation, and folks tend to be better armed than the actual people robbing the banks. This is a compelling vision of a very particular part of Texas (though how realistic isn’t for the Smoke Screen to say). This isn’t the high towers of Dallas or the liberal island of Austin. This, as Bridges’s character chuckles dryly several times, is West Texas. Mackenzie’s camera – under the command of DP Giles Nuttgens – paints for us a potent world of bleached wood plank walls, rusty wire fences, and isolated towns that seem to be 50% parking lot, 50% fast food joints. You can feel how dry and still the air is out there. There is a hazy, hard beauty to this land particularly when lensed in high angle, wide shots as cars cross the unending rural highways, but the cinematography also serves one of the film’s key subtexts. This is a state where there is almost no industry to be seen anymore. There is nothing to do of worth, unless you want to shovel burgers or join the cops… or perform foreclosure work in one of the state banks.
The role of the banking industry in hollowing out the security of the middle classes in America is obviously a target here, but Alberto, in one of his more reflective moments, situates this calamity as part of a deeper, Wagnerian-sounding cycle of doom. Just as his people got crushed underfoot 150 years back, now white Americans are having their own land stolen out from under them, except this time it is not being done by armies or bullets. The subtext bubbles under the surface, but is wisely never pushed so strongly that it either exonerates Toby’s life-changing decision, or that the film swaps entertainment for preaching.