As a professional actor for the last 30 years, Gil Birmingham (“The Twilight Saga,” TV’s “House of Cards”) knows the difference between projects he considers “commercial endeavors that help you sustain your life” and those he considers art. It’s the latter he finds more fulfilling as a TV and movie star.
“There are things I really love to do as an artist,” Birmingham, 63, told me during an interview last month. “I love doing things where I can put my heart and soul into it.”
Birmingham considers his latest film, “Hell or High Water,” the kind of character-driven project that demonstrates why he has enjoyed his work as an actor for the last three decades. In the film, Birmingham plays Alberto Parker, a half-Comanche, half-Mexican Texas Ranger who teams up with his partner of 15 years (Oscar winner Jeff Bridges) to catch a pair of bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) in West Texas. Birmingham, who was born in San Antonio where he spent the first two years of his life, likens the brothers to ordinary U.S. citizens who lost everything during the 2008 recession.
“I think [the film] has some very interesting twists, especially as it pertains to the contemporary application of the recession and how people have been struggling,” he said. “The antagonist is the banks, but I think it’s metaphoric for corporations, too.”
“Hell or High Water” marks the first time Birmingham has worked so closely with an actor of Bridges’ caliber. Because the film relies so much on the dynamic between the two veteran actors, they were given time during pre-production to create a bond that would translate to their characters’ friendship. Much of that rapport came from their real-life fondness for music.
“We spent about a week together…and that provided a great opportunity for Jeff and I to just get to know each other musically speaking,” Birmingham said. “Every day Jeff would ask me, ‘Did you bring your guitar?’ I would say, ‘Jeff, when are we going to get a chance to play? We’re doing 14-hour days!” He’d go, ‘You never know.’”
Before production on the film began, Birmingham and Bridges had logged quite a few hours playing the guitar together. More importantly, they established a camaraderie that is evident in the film, especially since they spend a majority of their time sharing the screen.
“I’ve worked with a number of A-list actors, but not to the extent that this movie provided,” Birmingham said. “It was like Jeff and I were doing a movie by ourselves. It was like filming a movie with two buddies.”
The role was also an opportunity for Birmingham to portray a Native American character in a positive light. It’s something he says he is conscious of every time he accepts a role at this point of his career.
“I feel a certain responsibility to do portrayals [of Native Americans] that are not going to be offensive,” he said. “If it’s a senseless injection of some stereotype, then it’s only perpetuating the very thing we’re trying to change.”
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster
Directed by: David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”)
Written by: Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”)
With the ever-increasing demand for complex narratives, there is something to be said for a film that expertly tells a basic story. It may be ground that has been treaded many times before, but very few things are better than simplistic storytelling with well written dialogue and pitch perfect performances. In “Hell or High Water,” director David Mackenzie takes a rudimentary bank robbing plotline and elevates it to truly special heights.
In order to save their family farm, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) go on a series of increasingly dangerous bank robberies to get the money. The investigation to find their next location is led by veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who uses every sense of knowhow and the input of his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to take down these amateur, and quickly-turning-professional criminals.
Every performance in “Hell or High Water” is exceptional, led by the always underrated Foster and Pine. Pine in particular is great at playing a level of reluctance bouncing off the loose cannon nature of his brother. It’s also a really great platform for Bridges, who in recent years seems to be playing the same marble-mouthed character over and over. As a grizzled veteran, the act really works in this film, and is made even better by the ball busting, buddy-cop relationship with Birmingham.
Story-wise, the plot for “Hell or High Water” truly can be summed up in a quick few sentences. It is, at times, almost too basic. There is still, however, something really intriguing about the desperation breeds necessity elements as well as the complexities family relationships can cause. It’s a story about brothers who don’t want to let anyone down, but it’s also about figuring out what to do when your back is against the wall.
It’s no surprise that “Hell or High Water” is well-crafted, given the pedigree of director Mackenzie, whose most recent film “Starred Up” was one of the hidden gems of 2013. It’s too funny to be a pure drama and too Western to be a straight up heist movie. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is for sure: it’s one of the best films of 2016 thus far.