2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.
Begin in Media Res
If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.
In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.
Begin in media res.
Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone
Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.
Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:
The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.
By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.
Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme
The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.
This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.
Social Commentary Done Right
HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:
After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.
As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.
I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.