IN AMERICA, they're calling it the sleeper hit of the summer. Scottish director David Mackenzie's pulpy-but-smart thriller Hell or High Water has already taken over $5 million from just a handful of screens, a deliberate ploy by his US distributor before widening the release. "They're playing a word-of-mouth game that so far seems to be quite successful," says Mackenzie.

Fresh off the back of a successful roll-out at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as the summer blockbusters now gives way to autumnal awards fare, Hell or High Water looks like it will straddle both, with talk of a seventh Oscar nomination for its veteran star Jeff Bridges, back to his flinty best as shrewd Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton on the trail of two sibling bank robbers.

For the 50 year-old Mackenzie, it's a triumph – a return to the sort of movies like Fat City, The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that Bridges was making back in the 1970s. "It's great to have an opportunity to do that type of film, and it's exciting that it seems to be doing alright. Let's hope the appetite for that sort of thing continues and we can get American and world cinema back away from the tentpole films that bore the life out of me."

Sporting a wild-man beard, the sort that Bridges has frequently worn to play his grizzled collection of characters, Mackenzie is not one to hold back. His best films, like the 2003 adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's cult beat novel Young Adam and his last outing, intense prison drama Starred Up, would not look out of place in the roster of great 1970s movies, when characters rather than carnage ruled. He clearly has little interest in the studios' current predilection for comic-books. "I'm not interested in those kind of cartoon characters. Never really have been."

It's why he was immediately drawn to Hell or High Water, originally a spec script penned by Taylor Sheridan (writer of last year's bleak drugs drama Sicario) who got it circulated in the industry after showing it to someone is his gym. "On the page, there was an opportunity to do something that had a genre kick to it, but at the same time [it] was absolutely about something," says Mackenzie. "Weirdly enough, those things are relatively few and far between when you're reading scripts."

A blend of crime saga and road movie, with a whiff of the western about it, the film's backdrop touches on the economic devastation that has affected small-town America in the wake of the 2008 downturn. Of the two bank-robbing brothers, while Tanner (Ben Foster) is a reckless wild card, Toby (Chris Pine) is committing crimes with one thing in mind: to pay off the mortgage and taxes owed on a family ranch facing foreclosure.

So is it a film about recession-era USA? "I think it's more than just that," answers Mackenzie. "I think it's a snapshot of modern America. It's a line I've been saying a lot, but it's swimming in the waters of race, of guns, of land, of banks, of family, of dispossession. And those are all heavy themes within contemporary American life. It feels like that's an interesting place to be for a movie that's actually a relatively fun one about bank robberies and cops and robbers."

While the movie was shot in New Mexico rather than Texas, purely for financial reasons, that presented its own set of problems – not least avoiding the locations used in the hugely popular TV show Breaking Bad, which shot all over the region. "One of the locations they first took me to was on an Indian Reservation, and I turned round and said, 'That's the f**king beginning of Breaking Bad – do not take me to any Breaking Bad locations again!' The last thing you want to do is tread in the footsteps of other films or shows."

His only previous Stateside outing with 2009's Spread, "a Hollywood sex satire" starring Ashton Kutcher that was rather overlooked. "Weirdly, I thought I was going to stay out there [in Los Angeles] but I came back to Glasgow and I didn't want to leave," he says. With his Sigma Films company based there, films that followed included the Glasgow-shot sci-fi Perfect Sense and You Instead, filmed in five days guerrilla-style at the T in the Park music festival.

Now, with the success of Hell or High Water, "America is beckoning again", as he puts it – a luxurious position to be in, albeit arriving with its own difficulties. Married with three children, "it's difficult to juggle family," he admits. "Life goes on while you're busy being immersed. Making a film is a full immersion experience, at least for me. Particularly the methodologies that I'm using – which are very much about trying to get under the skin of the material. You don't get much time off from that."

It's been that way ever since the Northumberland-born director graduated from college in Dundee, cut his teeth on several shorts and then made his feature debut – starring his brother Alastair – in 2002, the Highlands-set thriller The Last Great Wilderness. He promises there are more homegrown projects in the pipeline too – including "one big one" he's looking for cast and financing for.

While he’s arguably one of Scotland’s most successful contemporary directors, for now, Mackenzie's more concerned with Hell or High Water's continued US dominance. "I'd love to see it going out into the heartlands and playing to all of America on both sides of the political divide." Tapping into Trump and Clinton supporters – he really will rule the box office then.

Hell or High Water opens in cinemas today