Ben Foster in Hell or High Water (2016)

Ben Foster: The Strange, Exhilarating Prince of the Sacrificial Lamb Role

Foster has provided the most valuable service a co-star can to actors like Chris Pine, Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg: He’s made these leading men and their hard jawlines interesting.

The first time most of us saw Ben Foster on screen, he was 19. The geeks of Freaks and Geeks sent him on the high school equivalent of a suicide mission. Eli didn’t know he was being used so Sam, Neal and Bill could get ahead socially, but Foster’s characters seldom realize they’re means to important plot ends.

Fast-forward two decades to the Howard brothers robbing West Texas banks in Hell or High Water (2016), and the elder bandit, Tanner, doesn’t look long for this world. Here, Foster puts on a wild exhaustion, like he’s been burning the candle at both ends all his life. With a swerving hairline, Shiner Bock gut, and red swelling around the eyes, he’s the loose cannon to Chris Pine’s cut-from-marble steadiness. If they look like brothers at all, it’s because Pine’s striking blue eyes are full of sad conflict and Foster’s, full of reckless abandon. Upon a backdrop of rural desolation and lost hope, Tanner has the look of a roughneck who would probably want to make America great again if he wasn’t liable to burn it all down himself. And yet, the film’s driving force is this harebrained good deed Tanner can do for his kid brother, help Toby out from under his debt with a mostly noble crime spree.

David Mackenzie’s well-received genre picture (out now on Blu-ray and VOD) is relishing how fun and ham-handedly poetic this all is — two brothers, kicking up highway dust, taking on the world — but so much of its color comes from Foster’s personal relishing. What makes him a standout character actor isn’t uncommon: He lacks a star’s ego, he’s not above acting out for a role and being squirrely doing it. (It’d be a correct assumption that he comes off as an odd duck away from the set.) More significant is the favor he continues doing for this century’s movie stars, how the parts he takes enliven movies that need it.

For a decade, Foster has provided the most valuable service a co-star can to actors like Pine, Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg: he helps make these leading men and their hard jawlines interesting to viewers, setting up performers who tend to signify importance on screen but whose roles lack flavor. Foster improvises, finds bizarre ways to deliver dialogue, plays the fool and bites bullets to make protagonists seem like deeper people. In Foster’s star-making role in 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Crowe’s black hat hasn’t figured out quite how to pay the piper until he realizes his gunslinging has created an animal in Foster’s Charlie Prince. Of course, Crowe ultimately completes his character arc by putting the monster out to pasture.

In Lone Survivor (2013), a movie where the casting hardly matters other than to have serious, muscular men portray camaraderie and determination, Foster goes out guns blazing to make Wahlberg the hero who learns acceptance. He’s easily the best part of Kill Your Darlings (2013), a movie that interprets the Beat writers as a cabal of theater majors. Foster plays William S. Burroughs as a bored, slime-voiced wall ornament of the literary party. He’s both the guide to show Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) what’s possible in iconoclastic writing, and the one who humbles himself in unmasking this artistic rebellion as part-farce. Ginsberg is then free to observe the movement in Howl, rather than simply perform it. In all cases, instead of stealing the show, Foster has a knack for illustrating what makes the lead’s valiance or burden a tangible force.

Nowhere is Foster’s ability to glue a cast together more subtle and crucial than in David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), another country song of a film in the vein of Hell or High Water, but this one entirely lovestruck. Gravely acted and golden-hour dappled, it’s a slow 90-minutes of Casey Affleck’s Bob and Rooney Mara’s Ruth bound by epistolary, pre-ordained romance. Bob has just engineered a jailbreak, and Ruth is waiting for him. When Foster good-ol’-boy saunters into the mix as Sheriff Patrick Wheeler, he brings Mara’s often indecipherable performance to earth. The would-be suitor dotes on her daughter and demonstrates that there could be some comfort in the straight life. In doing so, Foster is shouldering some beautiful contradictions. The lawman has the power of a badge and gun on his side and he’s the natural enemy of Ruth’s husband, but it almost embarrasses him. Behind a soft drawl and bushy frown of a mustache, Foster bears some massive dramatic irony too. He’s the only one who doesn’t know that every scene in this cinematic ballad is about Ruth and Bob being together. Conversely, he’s the only actor who seems like he’d bleed if you cut him.

Perhaps this repeated note of sacrifice is possible because Foster’s characters often have a lost sheen to them, as though they gave away something promising to be playing the third wheel. In a very narrow Hollywood definition, the same could be said of the actor. There was a moment when some thought of him as a candidate for the stardom he’s now so often helping to elevate. See this laughable scene from X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) where director Brett Ratner’s camera attempts to lodge the blonde spikes and abs into the audience’s memory and the pages of gossip magazines.

Hard to say whether Foster was too exciting, or too excitable, for that kind of casting, but the subversive, intimidating energy he brings to the screen doesn’t fit a star’s demeanor. The same year as X-Men: The Last Stand, after all, he was trying out a kind of neurotic Joe Pesci shtick in Alpha Dog (2006).

If there’s a challenge for the future, it’s to see what Foster could do with a script that’s not an ill-fated Americana tale — where he’s not a robber dying on a hill or a soldier, well, dying on a hill. Earlier this year, he played a wizard in the much-maligned Warcraft (2016), and in this fall’s Inferno (2016) he played the villain, a doomsday geneticist whose big trick is killing himself before much of the action beings. By this point, he’s earned some roles where his purpose isn’t quite so telegraphed. Let’s see in what unpredictable directions he could bounce when he’s not cast as the narrative’s sacrificial lamb.

He could handle it; Ben Foster visibly adores a good script. In a quiet departure scene from the burning rubber of Hell or High Water, the brothers tease each other over their types. The night before, Tanner’s half-wasted, live-wire charm won over a casino receptionist. Gazing out at the dusk, Toby (Pine) laments that he’s never been with “a sweet one”. Foster’s character ribs him back closer to home, reminding him about his ex-wife with whom Toby is trying to get square with by robbing these banks. “You like ‘em pissed off and looking for someone to blame.” Laughing to himself, Foster is nearly breaking character in how tickled he is by that quip, about being drawn to your own undoing. But then, he’d know something about playing that part.