Tag: movies


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:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

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.

1917 and Character Development

Um… I had to steal this from an image search. So attribution is to DuckDuckGo. Thanks DuckDuckGo!

About a quarter of the way through Sam Mendes’s 1917, after almost being killed by a trap left by the Germans, the two soldiers assigned to a perilous mission stumble on a small yard filled with cherry trees. As they walk through the yard, taking a moment to take in the damage to the trees, Lance Corporal Blake tells his comrade, Lance Corporal Shofield, about the cherry trees his family kept at his home. Later in the movie, cherry trees play a significant metaphorical role.

However, in the moment I found myself thinking how weird it felt to be listening to this story at this point in the film. It’s hard to explain why, because on its face there’s nothing wrong with how the scene played out. It’s clear in the movie that cherry trees weren’t uncommon in that area, so them stumbling on a small yard filled with them wasn’t too coincidental or anything. When spending time with a single person, as Blake and Shofield were doing, it doesn’t take a huge prompt to discuss your history or reflect, especially in circumstances such as war. Cherry trees even play a significant role later in the film, adding a later importance to the film.

All of that is fine, but in the moment I found myself wondering what it was supposed to tell me about Blake’s character. While the information did serve the movie, I didn’t see the way in which it served the character. At that point in the film it was just exposition.

While some of the way character development was handled was a result of the chosen style–one single shot for the entire film–I wondered what other ways the film could have given us information about the characters in a way that served them fully, without coming across as forced. From the beginning of the film it’s clear that Blake is more impulsive, while Shofield is cautious, world-weary. But this dynamic isn’t really explored, such as when they’re trying to get through no man’s land and Blake is hurrying ahead. Instead of exploring the push and pull between their approaches to the way (and their motivations for the mission), the scene instead is literally us watching them cross the field until they reach the next checkpoint. We could have seen Shofield physically hold Blake back at some point, explaining to him that they need to remember their training or they’ll die. Something like that to get us deeper into their personalities.

Another missed opportunity, in my opinion, was Shofield’s reveal at the end. This is a slight SPOILER, so reader beware going into the next paragraph.

Early in the film, we see Shofield open a metal case, check to make sure something is inside, and then return it to his inside pocket. We’re not shown what’s in the case until the last shot of the film, when it’s revealed to be a picture of his wife and child. Now, why wouldn’t this reveal happen as early as possible in order for the audience to relate to Shofield? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I couldn’t understand the significance of the unveiling then, as opposed to earlier.

There are lots of little moments throughout the film that felt like they could have done more to reveal character or connect us with the characters. And it got me thinking, what makes a good, productive backstory reveal?

As I mentioned above, it’s because, ideally, the backstory serves character and story both. But, in a pinch where only one can be fleshed out or pushed forward, it should be the character. The story has other machinations to move forward.

And that’s where 1917 disappointed me. I never felt attached to the characters, never felt like I knew what their inner lives might be like. And so I was never fully invested in the film, which meant I spent time wondering why they were talking about cherry trees instead of worrying what they would find next.

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