Chris Pine film

Chris Pine, HELL OR HIGH WATER, and walking the character actor-leading man tightrope

Monday, August 29, 2016 Rob Samuelson

A ski mask cannot obscure the internal conflict in the blue eyes of a new-to-the-game bank robber in the opening scene of Hell Or High Water. His eyes dart around as he surveys the rinky dink small town Texas bank in the minutes before it is set to open its doors. The branch’s opening bank teller (played with both sassy frustration and fear by the reliable character actress Dale Dickey) sits as a hostage in the middle of the floor, taking stock of the obviously nervous amateur in front of her. She tosses verbal taunts at our jittery protagonist and his shorter, stockier, and surlier co-robber, teasing her armed assailants for not doing their homework about who has access to the money they so desperately wish to obtain.

Photo credit: Hell or High Water/Facebook

The wait for the bank manager’s arrival nearly kills Mr. Blue Eyes. The ridges of his eyebrows nearly explode with concern, teetering on the edge of outright panic. He cannot control it. This isn’t his racket. He’s no criminal. At least, he hasn’t been until this moment, and he wants out. Just as he’s about to make that decision to abort his attempt at a new life as an outlaw, the manager shows up, safe combination tucked inside his head. A blue eyed bandit is christened as he stands by to watch his partner knock his pistol into the manager’s nose. He is sickened, frightened, and confused by his new reality as he and his partner run like hell to their parked Trans Am, a once vibrant piece of machinery that is now a symbol of better, faster, more fun and innocent times long since faded -- much like these robbers’ prospects for an upstanding life has gone down the tubes.

With police cruisers approaching the bank, the robbers try to appear inconspicuous -- meaning, of course, no ski masks. The raggedy hats slink off these robbers’ faces and ol’ Blue Eyes is not some grotesque failure. He is Chris Pine, handsome man extraordinaire. Pine is the type of guy you don’t expect to be down on his luck, given his looks and charisma. His Hell Or High Water character, Toby, is not lacking in those qualities, yet here he is, little more than a husk, hollowed out by the death of his mother, an estranged wife and two sons he had at too young an age to capably care for them, and unpayable debts on the unprofitable family ranch. Toby is not a winner in any sense outside of the genetic lottery. Pine channels that failure -- and its attending shame and depression -- into a wholly believable portrait of a man trying to make a right out of two wrongs. It is a complete performance. It is a performance of a piece with Pine’s career of late.

Because Chris Pine is not just “professionally handsome” in the way many leading men of recent vintage can be. He is a character actor in movie megastar’s clothing. When he goes heroic, as he does in his most famous role as Captain James T. Kirk in the current series of Star Trek films, he has complicated motivations. Honor and duty and the American Starfleet way are not the primary things that make his Kirk tick. He is damaged and forgotten -- first by the father who died ensuring his safety, then by his mother who was out of the picture by the time his voice changed -- a spiteful creature out for attention and acceptance. A couple wrong turns in his life and he could have grown up to be a con man in outer space. It’s a good thing that his spite led him down a more honorable path, but it’s still spite nonetheless. See Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s (Karl Urban) drinking session observation in Star Trek Beyond, for instance.

Photo credit: Star Trek/Facebook

“You wanted to see if you could live up to him,” Bones says to a restless Kirk about his absentee father (played in 2009’s Star Trek by the famous Chris of the Hemsworth clan). Kirk wants to do his dead dad one better. He wants to show that he’s got what it takes to be the best Starfleet captain in the galaxy, not because it’s necessarily best for the crew or the betterment of species in the Federation, but because he needs it. Those other factors just make the eventual accomplishment all the sweeter.

But the thing that makes Pine special among the current set of lead actors is not that he is simply a good actor who can imbue stock characters with depth that may not necessarily exist on the page. He often checks his vanity at the door to get kooky, bizarre, or downright gross. That was the case with his performance in 2015’s Stretch, the only bright spot of an otherwise wretched movie about a limo driver (Patrick Wilson) who attempts to get an absurd amount of money over one long night. Pine plays the worst kind of eccentric billionaire, a gonzo thrill seeker whose first appearance on the screen is a rather revealing -- and amusing -- skydiving accident. His long, scraggly hair and beard obscure his usually polished look, leaving only the aforementioned blue eyes to bug out of his head as he makes heinous requests of Wilson and the beautiful women he sweeps up in his wake of wealth and debauchery.

That wild man persona did not carry over to another of his 2015 performances. In Z For Zachariah, he is nearly sedate. He enters the film, a low-key drama about surviving after a calamitous event dismantles society, as a calm drifter. He wanders onto the farm that serves as the base for Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s characters. Those two have played house for months, living as a couple that would almost certainly not have gotten together if society still existed. Pine’s presence -- his handsome presence -- drive Ejiofor mad with jealousy. Accusations fly and Pine, an unnervingly serene guy whose politeness never seems quite genuine enough, grows in stature. Through little fault of his own, he throws off the balance of the already tenuous family unit until the miserable stew boils over.

These recent roles for Pine suggest that it would not be shocking to see him follow a similar career path to his Hell Or High Water costar, Jeff Bridges. Bridges has always straddled the fence between leading man and character actor, with chameleonic roles in things as varied as Starman and The Last Picture Show. His most famous part, that of The Dude in The Big Lebowski, is far from a normal acting gig for a famous leading man. All vanity is gone from him in that film, with a beer belly and generally unkempt look. He is also a man of inaction, annoyed at having to participate in the absurd mystery the movie centers on.

Bridges’s late-period shift to Dude-like layabouts and gruff lawmen may not be in the cards for Pine, though. His franchise commitments, most notably to Star Trek and the upcoming Wonder Woman, will require him to maintain his youthful athleticism even as he approaches his mid-40s. For that reason, Pine’s future may most closely resemble another blue-eyed star, Paul Newman.

Photo credit: The Sting/Facebook

Newman didn’t slow down as he reached middle age. He was still running from the law in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, being a rascally swindler in The Sting, and eating way too many eggs in Cool Hand Luke. He starred in all of those movies when he was north of 40. Hollywood was different then. Franchises weren’t much of a concern, but star vehicles sure were. Newman brought pain, a sense of justice, and more than a little good-natured fun to characters that could have, in the hands of less skilled performers, been generic boilerplates. Don’t be surprised if Chris Pine follows that road map.

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