In 2005, I visited my home state of Texas, spending time on a ranch outside the town of Post. Then spending some time on a large ranch outside Archer City. I was taken by just how few young people I saw anywhere. Driving through one little town after the next, I couldn’t help but notice what each had in common — they all had a bank branch, a gas station, a cafe and all seemed virtually uninhabited. I commented on this to my friend who ran cattle in this area. He nodded and said, “Yep. You could rob that bank and it would be a secret between you and the clerk.” (Pretty good line. Tried like hell to find somewhere to use it.)
In 2011, I was in Hollywood peddling “Sicario” to constant and resounding “no’s.” Texas was suffering the worst drought on record. Wildfires spread across West Texas, burning some 4 million acres and 3,000 homes. While the urban centers in Texas were experiencing an economic boom, West Texas was collapsing under the weight of drought and fires. The total cattle population in Texas dropped by 20%. Homes in small towns like Archer City could be purchased for the back taxes (if anyone wanted to buy them, which no one does). More than watching friends and families lose everything, I was witnessing the end of a way of life.
It was remembering my conversation with an old friend in Archer City and this apocalypse on my home state that was the seed for “Hell or High Water.” I began floating the idea of the movie to even more resounding “no’s.”I was told modern westerns were toxic, and writing leading roles for men in their 60s was a great way to never sell a screenplay. All this gave me tremendous freedom to break a lot of rules with “Hell or High Water” because I was absolutely convinced no one would ever make it.
As a writer, I like absurdly simple plots. Having to spend almost no time explaining the plot allows me to be more clever in the way it’s revealed. It also allows me to focus almost solely on character.
I love to play with the notion of who the protagonist is — who is the audience supposed to root for? I did it in “Sicario” and feel it was the strength of the script — guiding the audience’s allegiance toward the villain because they think he’s the hero, until it’s revealed that he’s the villain.
In our “heroes” here, the brothers Toby and Tanner, I wanted to create characters that were deeply flawed and those flaws all very visible. I wanted the audience to like them in spite of what they were doing rather than because of it, which is the reason I withheld the information regarding the reverse-mortgage until the end of the second act. It also gives me the time to make the landscape a character in the film and give the people who populate the landscape a voice beyond “he went that-a-way.” Most important, it allows me to truly focus on the three major themes of the film rather than compressing them into one or two scenes:
1) The consequence of poverty and abuse on generations of a family: The consequences of Toby and Tanner’s childhood are everywhere — from the dilapidated home, to Toby’s failed marriage and fractured relationship with his children, to Tanner’s many years in prison. They are the embodiment of a family demolished by poverty and violence.
2) Failure in multiple senses: When Tanner asks Toby how long it’s been since he’s seen his children, Toby’s answer is vague, compelling Tanner to do the math — calculating it’s been over a year. Toby uses unpaid child support as an excuse but the real reason is revealed when Toby finally sits with his oldest son: It’s shame.
Tanner’s failure as a member of society is complete in every way — from robbing banks, to assaulting the young woman in the casino, to his use of violence without hesitation or remorse.
Texas Ranger Marcus’ failure is more nuanced and not realized by him until the end of the film. It is his inability to show his friend and partner affection. His pride and insecurity prevent him from expressing his emotions in any meaningful way as their relationship draws to a close. To compensate, he uses superficial and racist insults as a means of showing his friendship. The last thing Marcus says to Alberto is a racist insult, and it’s not until that moment that Marcus is forced to confront the cruelty of his behavior.
3) The manner in which massive corporate institutions prey on the most vulnerable in society. The last theme is present virtually everywhere in the film — from the consequences of a predatory loan on every member of Toby’s family, to a single mother working as a waitress (one of the few jobs available to women in rural America even today), to every town we pass through where the only new building is a bank and billboards portraying the perpetrators of the recession as its savior.
While I feel it’s important for films to examine our society, I don’t particularly like watching the films that do it. And so, knowing no one wants to sit through two hours of desperate lives shattering, I decided to coat the pill with a fair amount of sugar. It was perhaps the riskiest element of the script — such a steady infusion of humor in a drama can come off as cavalier and insensitive. Likewise, humor in a screenplay is only as funny as its delivery. I was terrified the “diner scene” would come off cartoonish, but Margaret Bowman as the brusque waitress pulled it off splendidly.
Nothing was riskier — and more dependent on the actors’ handling of the dialogue — than the barbs traded by Marcus and Alberto. Had Jeff Bridges as Marcus infused even a hint of malice, insensitive jokes would be mean, and had Gil Birmingham as Alberto allowed himself to be either amused or offended, their relationship would seem false.
When I sat down to write the final scene, it was with the intention of writing a violent end between Toby and Marcus. But as the dialogue unfolded, it felt fitting that the shoot-out in a modern western be interrupted by an SUV and kids coming home from school. It also felt fitting that they both get to admit their guilt without confessing, and that living with the consequences of their actions was more punishment than dying to defend them.