‘Hell or High Water’ — Always Two There Are
Looking into the dualistic structure of the narrative
Hell or High Water (2016) is at face value a classical tale of cops and robbers, or perhaps even a modern western as it has been hailed by many. It’s a story about what is right and what is wrong. Lawmen and outlaws. You don’t have to watch the movie for long before you notice that everything in the movie is 2-sided. There is two of everything. There is a counterpart for everything. Two brothers- one the criminal, one the law-abiding citizen. Two Texas Rangers- one white and one Native American.
All the main elements are opposites and are pulling in different directions. By doing so, the scenes in the movie have an inbuilt dynamic that creates a very interesting and well-paced narrative.
Word of warning: the rest of this article pretty much spoils the entire movie — so if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading right here and return when you have watched it.
Doing bad things for the right reasons
Hell or High Water is a movie about the disenfranchised landowners of rural Texas and the rich and ruthless banks. It’s about the white Americans and the native Americans.
However, there is no black and white in this story. There is no right and wrong. There is a premeditated crime (and murder) being committed; no question about that. Except that most of the motivations that lead up to these moments are not based on actions of evil people per se. These are struggling people trying their best to dig themselves out of a situation which blindsided them.
Setting the story in motion
Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges) is a Texas Ranger. Toby Howard (played by Chris Pine) is the mastermind — if you can call it that — of the bank robberies. Story-wise they are both protagonists. Both of them have set out on a quest, and their journey to solve their respective quests is the focal point of the story, with both of them having polar opposite partners.
The entire story of Hell or High Water is set into motion when Toby and Tanner’s mother dies. While taking care of their mother in her final months, Toby discovers oil on the land and concocts a plan to make a leave a generous sum of money for his (two) sons, whilst making amends with his ex-wife by securing her and his sons financially.
The oil company is on board to finance the drilling of the land, but if Toby misses more payments on the mortgage to the bank, the bank will foreclose the ranch and the land.
Stuck between the two (!) institutions — Toby reaches out to his brother Tanner and asks him to help him rob some banks. He plans just to rob enough money to pay the mortgage in full and gain full ownership of the land again.
The brothers are as different as night and day. One is an introverted and thoughtful divorced father of two; the other is a hothead career-criminal who takes actions without ever thinking of the consequences. They went down two very different paths in life, but it’s clear from the first scenes in the movie that the brothers clearly love and have a high respect for each other. It’s about these good people who do bad things for right reasons. Nevertheless, as the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The brothers are obviously committing crimes by robbing banks- but it’s the only way to get enough money to pay back the loans on the lands left to them by their newly departed mother. Toby has failed both as a father and as a husband, but he’s trying hard to make amends by leaving all the land — and oil — to his sons.
It’s when the dualistic nature of the narrative is disturbed that — for the characters in the story — life changing events are then set into motion. The dynamic has changed. Toby becomes separated with his wife and moves back home to take care of his dying mother. Again, two of everything: two women.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has with Toby Howard created a fascinating personality as the main protagonist. On the surface level, there is very little to him. He is not reckless like his brother and he doesn’t seem all that interesting or a character you as the audience would automatically root for. He is somewhat cautious and often tells his brother to slow down — both figuratively and literally. The only one time does Toby lurch out, is at the gas station when Tanner is threatened by some rednecks.
He is fascinating character from a narrative point of view due to his ability to always have at least one person “pissed off at him”.
It’s only in the second half of the movie that the dual nature of things gets disrupted. Toby and Tanner start to drive in separate cars. Tanner wants to bring a lot of heavy weapons with him and Toby refuses to drive in a car stocked with enough rifles and machine guns to fight a small war.
The Texas Rangers also start to split up or separate. While Marcus and Alberto are watching one of the banks they that predict the brother will rob next- Marcus decides to sleep the night on the bench overlooking the bank, while Alberto checks into a nearby hotel to spend the night. Alberto changes into fresh clothes and Marcus sleeps in yesterday’s clothiers. The two Texas Rangers, therefore, don’t wear the same shirts anymore. It’s direct continuation of their first conversation in the movie, albeit non-verbal this time.
It’s not explicitly explained in the screenplay, but in the scene in the final movie, it’s very clear that the two Rangers now wear different shirts. They are drifting apart.
The duality is broken and it’s only a matter of time before the order of the narrative universe becomes undone. Something has to give. These two small changes in between the brothers and the Rangers (respectively) directly lead up to the confrontation in the third act.
The balance is only restored in the very last scene of the movie. The dual nature of the story was momentarily disrupted when both Alberto and Tanner was killed.
Marcus confronts Toby on the porch of his (or his ex-wife’s) home, and Toby is challenging Marcus to a final gunfight- both literally and figuratively. Telling him that he will put his mind at ease “to give him peace”.
The dynamic is restored. Toby has made his (ex)wife happy and his sons rich. They never have to worry about money ever again. His quest is solved. And Marcus knows deep down that Toby was behind all the bank robberies- though he cannot prove it. He found his bank robber, but he can’t arrest him. Both men — Toby and Marcus — need enemies in their lives. They need opposites to function. They need someone or something to “play ball” against. If not they fade away into obscurity. They have both found a new person that “is pissed off and looking for someone to blame”.
That is the sole reason for Marcus to come looking for Toby after he has retired. He needs it. They are both Comanche. Enemies forever.
There is no black or white
The story of Hell or High Water is deceptively simple, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan expertly inserts two opposites in all aspects of the story.
Imagine for a moment that there had only been one man (with no brother helping him) and he’s only robbing the banks to pay the alimony owed to his ex-wife. Also, imagine that there was only one close-to-retirement Texas Ranger chasing him across the state. It would have been a completely different movie.
By adding the dual elements, it somehow blurs the lines between right and wrong. It’s suddenly not so black and white anymore. Even Tanner- who is arguably a gigantic asshole of a criminal- gets redeeming qualities when played against his law-abiding brother whom he clearly loves deeply.
By adding opposites, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is even able to show a vulnerable side to the scruffy, grumpy old Marcus. Without Alberto at his side- the audience would have rejected him from the start.
Take all the dual elements out of the story and all you are left with is a bland cops and robbers story with no heart. Include it, and you have an Oscar-nominated screenplay on your hands.
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Simon Lund Larsen holds down a day job at a toy factory in Denmark. He spends his free time trying to figure out why some movies work so much better than others. Byline at The Outtake, Movie Time Guru and CineNation. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle: @SimonLundLarsen.