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Hell or High Water: More Than Just a Heist Movie
By Jacob Krueger
Hell or High Water: More Than Just a Heist Movie
This week we’re going to be talking about Hell or High Water.
One of the things that’s really cool about Hell or High Water, and one of the things that’s really cool about this script by Taylor Sheridan is the way it uses a twist on an old genre to deliver a movie that far exceeds our expectations of the genre.
Hell or High Water isn’t just a cops-and-robbers-heist-movie, even though it falls into that genre. Hell or High Water is actually a pretty powerful political film.
I want to take a moment to talk about how you write a political film. Because, oftentimes, when we sit down to write a political film, we end up standing up on a soap box and screaming our opinions. We end up making the movie about the opinions, rather than about the story.
When we do this, although we will get a lot of approbation from people who feel the way we do, it’s very hard to move the needle on people who feel differently.
It’s just like the experience you have on Facebook when your friends de-friend you and you de-friend your friends once you find out their horrific political beliefs. Although this feels good at first, what it really ends up doing is limiting our discourse; it ends up taking away the discussion that actually allows people to change their opinions.
Of course, this is part of why we write movies, right? We write movies because we want to help people change. We want to help people see the world in a different way. Part of doing that means bringing them along for the ride, structuring our films in a way that our political message isn’t on the surface, but underneath.
If you’ve listened to my podcast on Captain America or many of these other action movies, you know how I feel about those movies. The potential that they have (which they all too often shy away from) to change the way people see things.
It’s funny, because when I was a young writer, I was way too snobby to write action movies. I wanted to do the “important” socio-political stuff. And I think now, if I were to return to Hollywood, I would probably be very interested in writing action movies. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that action movies may actually be the most powerful political weapon we have, because everybody sees them. When you hide your message inside those two spoonfuls of sugar, you end up with a really powerful product that can sway the beliefs of millions or even hundreds of millions of people.
What we’re seeing today in Hell or High Water is really cool, because we’re seeing an example of a political film, made on a small budget, that uses the genre engine of a traditional cops and robbers structure, to bury that political message inside the product that they already know they want. I like to think of this as “feeding the genre monster” of the audience– understanding the need that is driving them to buy the ticket, and then delivering even more than they expected.
You can think of the political part, what the movie’s really about, as the ingredients. And the experience of the movie, the part the audience is shopping for, as the container.
Just like you don’t need to understand every ingredient that goes into making your favorite product, your audience doesn’t need to understand every ingredient that went into creating your film. They just need to understand what the container is promising, and feel, after sampling the product, that you delivered what you promised.
Do that, and you can get away with anything.
So, this is the first question to ask yourself if you’re writing a political movie: what parts are the ingredients and which parts are the container? The politics need to be an ingredient of the film, but they cannot be the container, because once they become the container rather than the ingredients, you risk cutting your audience down until it only consists of the people who already believe as you do! And those are not the people you need to reach with your movie.
If you’re making an anti-bank movie like Hell or High Water — a movie about the way that the banking industry destroys the American dream — your target can’t just be Williamsburg hipsters. Your target needs to be small town America. Your market needs to be conservative voters; your market needs to be the people who may not already see the world your way, because those are the people whose minds you need to change. While those people might not come out for an anti-bank movie, they certainly will come out for a cops-and-robbers-heist-movie, and that of course is exactly what Hell or High Water is.
But beyond its politics, Hell or High Water is also a character movie. It’s a movie driven by profoundly written and beautifully performed characters. And because it depends on those characters, it takes those political themes, which all so often become isolating when we see them on Facebook, and translates them — whatever your beliefs may be — into a palpable, emotional theme that you can actually feel. It allows you to understand, even if you disagree, much in the way that that picture of that little boy in Aleppo took a Syrian war that was a totally political idea and turned it personal.
Portraying a story of characters that we can love — not perfect characters, flawed characters — pursuing the things that matter to them in the face of a very difficult system, allows us to empathize, whether our beliefs and their beliefs match up or not.
What’s really interesting is that Hell or High Water does this without departing from any of the genre elements that we’ve come to expect in these kinds of movies. Yet, at the same time, unlike so many of these movies which follow the same formula, Hell or High Water seems incredibly fresh and new.
So how do they manage that? Well, once again it’s about observation of character.
Let’s make it really clear — Hell or High Water is not reinventing the wheel. What Hell or High Water is doing is turning that wheel, turning that formula, in a slightly better observed, slightly more character-driven way. It’s reinterpreting those elements that its audience came to see, so that it can not only deliver the genre experience they came for, but also give them something a little deeper that they probably didn’t even expect.
At the center of Hell or High Water are exactly the kind of robbers we’d expect in an independent heist movie.
We’ve got two guys trying for one last heist so that they can once and for all have a better life for their children — and we’ve seen that trope million times. One, of course, is a total psychopath, a trickster character just like we have in every heist movie. And the other, of course, is the innocent soul who’s only doing it for the right reasons.
Yes, of course, the actions of the trickster character — Tanner Howard, played by Ben Foster — of course his actions get his good brother, Toby Howard, played by Chris Pine, deeper and deeper and deeper into trouble.
However, this trickster psychopath is so much different than the ones that we’ve seen in most movies. He’s not just playing that archetypal role or that stereotypical role. Instead he is looked at with humanity and grace by the writer.
Inside of this ugly person, writer Taylor Sheridan finds the beauty, finds the humanity. So yes, Tanner Howard is a total psycho; yes, he enjoys being a criminal; yes, he enjoys hurting people; yes, he’s got a huge attitude problem; yes, he’s got crazy impulse control issues; yes, he is a violent murderous killer who will kill or hurt just about anyone. But Tanner has something that differentiates him from every other version of this character we’ve seen in other heist movies. Tanner loves the hell out of his brother.
If you want to write a really lovable bad guy, look for the love.
If you want to find the humanity in anybody look for the love. If you want to make us care and make your characters relatable, look for the love. Because as much fun as it is to watch a psychopath, it’s so much more fun to watch a psychopath who actually loves something.
That little piece of love in this incredibly dark character not only transforms the character and our enjoyment of the character, it also transforms the theme of the piece, allowing us to really get caught up in the emotional complexity of some very complicated political issues — the issues of our prison system, the issues of what happens when kids grow up poor and don’t have a chance, the issues of what happens when that love gets pushed under and comes back up in a shadow form.
We have this character who we can see as a horrible killer — and just a warning that there are spoilers ahead — who ends up killing one of the most lovable characters in the whole piece in a savage and unnecessary way. And at the same time we can also see him as a Christ figure. A character who in many ways dies for his brother. One could say he dies for his brother’s sins.
What’s really interesting about this character, as the sheriff, played by Jeff Bridges, points out in one of the final scenes of the movie, Tanner does enjoy doing this. He enjoys killing and robbing. He’s doing it because he enjoys it. He has all that darkness to him and all that criminal nature to him. But he’s also doing it for love and devotion.
And the screenplay doesn’t shy away from the complexity of it. It refuses to cast even its worst characters as good guys or bad guys; instead it casts them as people. In this way, it looks in a very honest way at crime in America, showing us how the people that we throw into prisons, the people we see as “bad guys,” are people too, even the ones who are violent in ways that we can’t understand.
One of the things that I think is most effective about the movie is the humanity it brings to everybody.
If you listened to my Podcast on Sully, you understand how to look at your antagonist in a more truthful way: the idea that the antagonist thinks that he is the hero of the story, the trickster thinks he’s the hero of the story, the psychotic killer thinks he is the hero of the story. Every character in your movie thinks they are the hero of the story!
And you can see very clearly in Hell or High Water that every single one of these characters is coming from a heroic place. There is no character who’s being bad purely for badness sake.
Cast opposite Tanner we have his brother, Toby Howard, played by Chris Pine. And Toby is the opposite of his brother in every way. Toby had never been in trouble. Toby showed up for his very cruel mother, even as she was dying. Toby is loyal and dedicated to his family, his estranged wife, his estranged children. He’s dedicated to them even though they don’t like him very much, and even though he knows that he’s “earned” their disapproval. Toby is the least likely bank robber in America. He’s at once very smart, but also very inexperienced, making mistakes like showing up too early, leaving a gun on the counter. But Toby is also cast in a complicated, very human light. We’ve seen this character before as well.
We’ve seen the good guy in an extreme situation who takes on a criminal act in order to save his family. But what makes this execution different is not only the depiction of Tanner, but also the way that the writer refuses to give us the exposition that we desire.
So often, as screenwriters, we feel like we need to make everything clear; we need to explain the story to our reader; we need to get that exposition out — this is what we feel. We are so afraid of not being understood that we don’t realize that part of connecting to a character, part of understanding a character and part of feeling the tension of the movie comes from the concept of in medias res.
This is a Greek concept — a concept back from the Greek playwrights– which is the idea of coming right into the middle of the action. We have to resist that urge to set up; we have to resist that urge to explain.
You can see the dexterity in Hell or High Water as we are dropped right into the middle of the characters’ world, asking the same question that ultimately the Sheriff, Marcus (the Jeff Bridges character) is going to ask, “Why did you do it?”
Why is this guy doing it? How does the plan work? Why are they only robbing certain banks?
Rather than explaining the plan to us, writer Taylor Sheridan forces us to figure out the plan for ourselves.
In this way, he draws us into not only the character of Toby, but also the Jeff Bridges character. He turns us into the detective trying to figure out the plan.
And, of course, in the characterization of Toby, Taylor Sheridan is also unswerving in his emotional truth. Even in one of the final scenes where Jeff Bridges and Toby square off, we don’t see a man who even seems to feel bad at all about the loss of Jeff Bridges’ partner. What we see is a complicated man, once again a man made hard by circumstance who is forced on a journey that changes him.
Then, of course, there’s the Jeff Bridges character, Marcus, another archetype that we’ve seen in a million movies — the weathered old cop on the eve of retirement who’s smarter than everyone else, trying to solve that one last crime before he retires.
But what makes this character different? Once again it’s the execution; it’s the observation.
What we’re used to with these characters in this genre is the cat and mouse game between the brilliant crooks and the brilliant cop. And what we get instead is perhaps the least exciting chase sequence in history.
Jeff Bridges spends most of the movie staking out one bank — sitting at a cafe outside, cracking Indian jokes about his Native American partner. He spends most of his time waiting at a place where no crime ever happens. And rather than a brilliant cat and mouse between cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, what we see instead is a racist cop who loves his Native American partner. What we see instead is a character relationship develop between two very different men. We see his Native American partner, Gil, played by Alberto Parker, who both loves and respects the man he’s traveling with, and also frickin’ hates him. And rather than watching a cat and mouse between two equally matched parties, what we watch is a couple of really bad crooks and a couple of good cops doing the best they can.
The next thing that this movie does that’s so successful is the tone. Especially when we’re writing a political movie, it’s so easy to take on an angry tone. When we do that, what happens is we once again end up losing the people who disagree with us.
The comic tone of this movie, this black comedy that we’re watching, the way the movie keeps letting you laugh, even as things grow darker and darker and darker, allows us to take down the walls between the audience and the movie, allows the audience to be shocked and horrified by the big surprise at the end, because we let down our guard rather than keeping it up.
Finally, there is the structure of the crime itself.
At the heart of any cops and robbers movie there’s got to be a crime. Oftentimes when we’re thinking about crimes, what we think about is: what’s the most exciting thing? What’s the thing that I’ve never seen before? what’s the most visually spectacular thing?
All those things are great and important, but what you really want to think about is theme.
In this case, the theme is very simple. It’s about the banking system. It’s about a system that this writer believes is skewed against the poor, that is decimating poor America, that is exploiting people who don’t understand the system, locking them into mortgages they can’t afford, foreclosing on their homes and destroying the opportunity of the American dream of an entire swath of the population.
It’s a movie about how poverty breeds crime, and not just the psychopathic crime of Tanner, but also the feeling of measured necessity of Toby.
It shows you how, when cornered, people can react, and it does so without ever excusing their actions, because it also shows you the horror that that crime inflicts on everyone around them.
You can see that the politics in the movie and the steps of the crime, the nature of the plan, the way things go right and the way things go wrong, are all deeply tied together. You can see it tied together even in the cinematic choices of the film, the way that we see the decimation of Texas.
So this is the concept that I want to leave you with. Writing genre movies is a powerful opportunity. It’s an opportunity to bring people in with the package that they want, and then deliver the message that we believe.
But, in order to do so, as writers we need to take three steps back from our perspective and ask ourselves this question: How can we meet our audience, not where we wish they could be, but where they actually are?
How can we honor their beliefs, and the truth underneath the beliefs of those we disagree with, in order to build a structure that surprises not only them, but also hopefully ourselves?
How can we take both ourselves and our audience one step further away from the black and white thinking that makes things seem so simple, and one step closer to seeing things as they really are.