Hell or High Water
Script-O-Meter 7 stars
Drama/Action/Western Running time: 100 minutes
A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.
“To Hell or High Water” is a genre blend of Drama and Action/Western, where the cause/catalyst for human behavior is rooted in the land. The land is a man’s legacy and it’s a man’s heart and soul. For those who can remember a writer by the name of Louis L’Amour, this story focuses on the deeply flawed main characters, but it does so within the context of the basic theme: The land is the legacy of a man. It is his heart and soul.
The Western is actually the American version of a mythological tale. Some elements of Mythology are in “To Hell Or High Water”: Story World which echoes social and land mass strata; a Hero who is reborn; a Hero who takes a journey to slay many dragons, only to return home to find what was there all the time.
Story World is an important element to craft in all screenplays. In this story, the Old West with wide vistas, cattle grazing, horses, cowboys, grit and cactus in the New Mexican territory – This is juxtaposed to the modern “new west” which, sadly enough, is the same wide vistas, but with a land of foreclosed homes, battered cars, and people owned by the banks.
In crafting a screenplay, Story World should echo the flaws of the main character. The “more intelligent brother main character” has been a failure of a father; estranged from his children; a non-payer of child support; a drinker; a drifter. After the death of his mother and the imminent foreclosure of her property, the Hero will have nothing left as a legacy to his children. Herein lies the similarity between the cowboy tied to his land and animals as in the Louis L’Amour stories and also, this is the “To Hell or High Water” core theme. The Story World echoes the Hero’s Weakness/Need – The Hero is a battered man and he feels that he has abandoned his son. The Old West has been abandoned by the banks and a bad economy where people are “used up.”
The Hero has a brother who is even more deeply flawed – the wild card who does time in prison; is a drifter; an alcoholic; a man adept at using a gun; a man quick to action; a man who is doomed to the legacy of his kin – generational poverty.
What could have been a “buddy picture,” is not at all because the genre beats are transcended. The Desire/Goal of the Hero and his brother is to leave some type of legacy to his children by paying off his mother’s mortgage. The Opponents here are the Texas Midland Bank, which is frothing at the bit to foreclose because of the discovery of oil on the mother’s property. The payout is $50,000/month and the bank can’t wait to get their hands on the deed. The image of the evil and greedy bank ready to foreclose on the widow has been done many times before. But because this story transcends genres with Drama and Action/Western, the questions of right and wrong are put to the test, much like the final showdown at the O.K. Corral with two men squaring off.
The other Opponent is the Texas Ranger. So, there are two Opponents here: the older man who is just about ready to retire after dealing with his share of “loose cannons” for much of his career and his assistant, a Native American Indian. Both of these characters banter back and forth and the audience is drawn in to the dilemma with which they are both faced: A world that has changed for the Native American Indian from 150 years prior when the land belonged to his people, the Commanches.
And then there’s the Main Opponent who is about to retire to a life that will no longer have any purpose. He is a widower and has problems showing intimacy. He respects his partner, the Native American Indian, but he shows his respect by constantly jabbing him with ridiculous racist references that he knows are simply gone with the wind, much like the land. In fact, the Story World mirrors beautifully the flawed two heroes: The demise of the Old West runs parallel with the demise of the two Rangers and what they have come to represent: law and order; morality based on a “high noon stand-off” from the now defunct Old West.
So, the 4-point Opposition is: The older Ranger, his assistant, the Bank and the Main Character who is struggling to “do the right thing” while breaking the law. All of these Opponents seek to block the Hero from reaching his Desire/Goal: To rob banks just so he gets enough money to pay off the mortgage; deed the property to his ex-wife and do right by his children.
Because the movie is 100 minutes long, this means that structurally, it hits all the beats except a strong Sequence 10, which occurs after the “almost lowest point of the story,” also called the “all is lost” moment of the story. In Sequence 10, the Hero regroups, the premise of the story is restated and the Hero’s strongest moral epiphany occurs here, whereby he makes a decision between two very compelling moral choices. For example: Should I choose love, or should I choose honor? Should I choose revenge, or should I choose honor?
The Hero has a plan regarding the robbing of banks, but the plan did not include killing anyone. His brother has his own moral epiphany moment which very honestly defines what he knows he must do in order to support the Hero’s Desire/Goal. But since Sequence 10 is missing, there is a brief Sequence 11, which is the Battle/Climax moment and the then the Self-Revelation of the Hero.
In true Western structural format, this is a “meeting of the minds moment” between the Main Opponent and the Hero – a showdown of sorts. Had there been a Sequence 10, the Sequence 11 would have been even more powerful and compelling. In a unique twisting of the beats, the audience is left to ponder, along with the Hero, just what is the right way to behave or the wrong way to behave and at what cost? People died in the bank robberies. That is an “inconvenient truth” that could have been addressed in the Self-Revelation moment for the Hero. The audience is left to decide.