You’re listed as Stunt Utility, but everyone knows you’re Jeff Bridges’ double. Well maybe not everyone. But obsessive Jeff fans like me are used to seeing your name in the credits of his films. You have been Jeff’s double on more than sixty movies. When Jeff swept the awards season in 2009/10 for Crazy Heart he thanked you, often. Circumstance may have brought you two together but you are more than co-workers, more than partners. You’re brothers. And sometimes the bonds of brotherhood are both a blessing and a curse.
You were an actual cowboy, a real-life rodeo rider, who grew up in a Texas that no longer exists.A newer, less-improved Texas is the backdrop for Hell or High Water, a Southern-fried cops and robbers film that borrows liberally (but not egregiously) from other neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men, The Proposition (including music by Nick Cave), and even Thelma and Louise. In this Texas, people who have lost their land and their livelihoods find themselves with limited options.
Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard think they’ve found a way out. In order to save their homestead they commit a series of small bank robberies, covering their tracks as they go. But veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, and his long-suffering partner Alberto Gonzales are hot on their trail. What on paper should be nothing more than a by-the-numbers cat-and-mouse flick is elevated by blessedly understated performances by Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the brothers, Gil Birmingham and My Jeff (and yours) as the Rangers. Taylor Sheridan’s spare but assured script, especially its surprisingly droll dialogue, is a thrill to watch being delivered with such depth and deftness.
You aspired to an acting career of your own, and though you have been in front of the camera many times, you’ve often taken the backseat to Jeff. Like many duos, one half often takes on the lead role while the other must be content to be a supporting player. Toby knows he’s the brain to brother Tanner’s fearless, criminal brawn (played with delicious good ‘ol boy charm by Foster), just as Ranger Gonzales is the patient straight man to his casually racist yet intuitive boss, Ranger Hamilton. None of these men are prone to talking about their feelings, and yet their stoicism speaks volumes. The interplay between these characters is so rich that it almost makes us forget we’re watching a heist film.
You’ve made your share of effects-heavy films alongside Jeff. Films like Tron Legacy, Ironman, and The Seventh Son, all of which relied on CGI, green-screen, and motion-capture. I’m sure they must be a trip to work on. But I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to watch a film that feels like it was made for adults. In many ways this film is a throwback to some of the films you and Jeff worked on in the 70s, particularly The Last Picture Show (your first film together), and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. These were films about characters who were desperate but not hopeless, who have fallen through the cracks of a bygone America and yet find a way to survive. There are no obvious heroes in Hell or High Water, but no real bad guys either. Except, of course, for the banks.
Hell or High Water only falters when its sermons about the evil banks, and the demise of blue-collar Texas become too heavy-handed. As the characters drive along dusty, rural roads (gorgeously shot by Giles Nuttgens) they pass billboards offering payday loans and debt relief, and graffiti on a bank wall that impotently cries, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”. But it’s easy to forgive dialogue like “I watched someone rob a bank that’s been robbing me for thirty years”, when it’s delivered in a dry, Texas drawl, and culminates in one of the most suspenseful and unsentimental shootout scenes in recent history (thanks to a particularly gripping performance by Jeff that might just net him his seventh Oscar nom).
You’ve been around film sets long enough that you likely have an intuition about which ones will be hits and which will be misses. You probably had a good feeling about Hell or High Water. All the pieces seemed to fall perfectly into place. Sheridan’s sharp and suspenseful script, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ slow-burn score, the perfect casting of not just the leads, but the supporting cast (especially Margaret Bowman’s waitress, who might just have the most memorable five minutes in this or any other film this year), all superbly assembled and paced by director David Mackenzie. You may have been in the passenger seat, but your role helping Jeff steer is just as important now as it was in 1971. Here’s hoping you get thanked again this awards season.