One of my screenwriting students in UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program wanted to know if I’d seen Hell or High Water. She wrote, “To me, it was the quintessential demonstration of how to write implicit dialogue: subtext delivers exposition. Scene after scene. Wow.” Naturally, with that kind of endorsement from a student of the craft, I had to check it out for myself. And yes – wow!
Hell or High Water is a tough little indie, set mostly in Texas, about some roughnecks who set out to rob banks, but whose motives are more complicated than they might first appear. This is not exactly brand-new territory (in terms of either the plot or the landscape). Bonnie and Clyde, for one, traveled through much of the same physical and psychological terrain. But unlike Bonnie and Clyde, which featured a pair of real-life Depression era outlaws, Hell or High Water reflects life as we know it today. Though midland Texas, as shown in this film, is still cowboy country, the social anxieties we see on screen could easily be ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.
It’s a beautiful film to look at and to listen to. I’m not exactly a fan of western music, but the score of Hell or High Water is augmented by haunting tunes that enhance the wide open spaces we see on screen. And those parched landscapes, dotted with dying little towns, pumping oil wells, and double-wide trailers, have their own eerie beauty. The cinematography is the work of the very talented Giles Nuttgens. His name wasn’t familiar to me, but I was pleased to discover he was responsible for another marvelous indie with water in its title: Deepa Mehta’s gorgeous glimpse of widowhood in the holy Indian city of Varanasi. Mehta’s Water revels in its liquid beauty. In Hell or High Water, there’s in fact a lot less water than oil. Or beer. But this is a visually stunning movie, all the same.
Now . . . about the screenwriting elements that so impressed my student. The script is the work of Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the much-admired Sicario, another film with a Southwestern setting. It’s probably because Sheridan is a working actor that he so keenly grasps how to delineate character with the tiniest scraps of dialogue. By the end of the film, we truly know these people through their behavioral quirks and bad jokes. When we first meet the film’s two bankrobbing brothers (played to a fare-thee-well by Ben Foster and the mesmerizing Chris Pine), their faces are covered by ski masks and we’re not really sure which is which. It’s not long, however, before we come to respect the gaping differences between them, differences that will help shape the plot. Then there’s their opposite number, the retirement-age Texas Ranger played by the always convincing Jeff Bridges. Though L.A.-born, Bridges has long been identified with the Southwest, from his breakthrough appearance in The Last Picture Show (1971) to his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart (2009). He has a genius for playing lived-in characters, and this is one of his very best.
One aspect of Sheridan’s writing (aided by the direction of David Mackenzie) that struck me as paticularly savvy is its tendency to withhold information from the audience as long as possible. As the film moves forward, we get only small hints about the rationale behind these particular robberies. The payoff, when it comes, is that much more provocative because we’ve put most of the pieces together ourselves. It helps us appreciate what a man will do when he’s stuck between hell and high water.