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Film / Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water is a 2016 drama directed by David Mackenzie, starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster.

Pine and Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers who turn to robbing banks to pay off the note on their family's land after their mother's death. When the FBI declines to lead the investigation, it falls to Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to track them down.

This is the second in Taylor Sheridan's thematic trilogy about the New Old West, along with Sicario and Wind River.


This work features examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • The Howards' father is said to have been physically abusive, and it's strongly implied through the brothers' dialogue that Tanner shot and killed him. A report near the end confirmed it, saying that he "accidentally" killed his father in a "hunting accident". In their barn.
    • No-one speaks very fondly of Mrs. Howard. Both her son, Tanner, and her former daughter-in-law basically tell Toby "good riddance" to his face. Toby waits weeks to even tell most of his family, including her grandsons, that she passed away.
  • Amoral Attorney: Albeit a sympathetic one; he advises the Howards on using the casino to launder their takings and establish a trust for Toby's sons, knowing full well what they're up to, because he's so disgusted with how the bank treated their mother.
  • Anti-Villain: The brothers, who are doing it to save their ranch, although Toby more so than Tanner. The tagline itself invokes the trope: "Justice is not a crime."
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  • Badass Bystander: It's set in Texas, so there's quite a few. The old man at the beginning acts totally nonplussed during the Howards' robbery of the small bank, but then fires afterwards when they forget about his gun. The guy in the crowded bank in Post who fires at Tanner is not one, though deserves points for trying. The aggravated locals who fire at the Howards afterwards, chase them in their trucks, and particularly the one who helps Hamilton flank Tanner definitely are.
  • Bank Robbery: The crux of the brothers' plan — robbing branches of the bank that holds the note on the family ranch, then using a nearby Indian casino to "clean" the money and paying the bank back with its own money.
  • Berserk Button: Hamilton's pretty jovial and wise-cracking until Alberto gets shot in the head by Tanner in the final firefight. Cue Roaring Rampage of Revenge with the help of one of the locals.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: The mouthy kid in the green car, who for no reason at all starts to antagonise Tanner. He even pulls a gun on perfectly stoic Tanner, only to be blind-sided by Toby and beaten into pulp.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Tanner and Toby both show care and protectiveness to each other.
  • Blood Knight: Tanner enjoys conflict, violence and the thrill of the chase. He's in his element during his Last Stand with police and going out in a blaze of glory like in the the old west is clearly how he wanted it to end.
  • Boom, Headshot!: The bank customer who shoots back, Alberto, and Tanner are all killed this way.
  • Brick Joke: During their second robbery, Toby left a gun owned by the old patron on the counter, only for the old man to retrieve his pistol and start shooting at them, for which Tanner chews his brother. Later, when Toby ends up beating a really mouthy kid threatening Tanner with a gun, he throws the gun away after he's done turning the guy into a mince. All Tanner has to say is to laughingly comment on his brother remembering about the gun this time.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The two rifles Tanner retrieves from his trailer for "insurance."
  • Crazy Enough to Work: The plan involves robbing all branches of a local Texan bank, launder the money using Indian casino and then... use the now-clean money to pay a mortgage held by the very same bank. And start a money trust in it for Toby's sons once the oil company starts their operation.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The brothers attempt at their biggest score: they hit a branch larger than what they usually hit, and it's payday, so the bank is bustling with customers. And it's Texas, so there's a lot of people armed and ready to make sure they don't escape clean. This is somewhat downplayed by Toby's clear reservations and the fact they are desperately running out of time and viable bank targets.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Toby and Tanner's mother dies shortly before the story begins; it's never mentioned how, but it apparently left her bedridden for years.
  • Duct Tape for Everything: Tanner uses it to stick two magazines together for faster reload and then to patch Toby's wound.
  • Everyone Is Armed: It's Texas. You knew this was going to come up sooner or later.
  • Evil Overlooker: More like Antagonist Overlooker; the poster features Marcus Hamilton's head "watching" the protagonists.
  • Face Death with Dignity: In his final seconds Tanner realises Marcus is taking aim at him from the flank. Rather than trying to move, duck or take his own shot, he just chuckles for the last time.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Both brothers are well aware their actions will catch up to them. Tanner even states there's no such thing as clean getaways. Subverted in that they clearly aren't trying to get away with it, they only need to accomplish their goal before they're caught.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Tanner, an ex-convict who revels in the rush from robbing banks and constantly acts on impulse, versus Toby, who devises the plan and tries to keep Tanner reined in and focused on the goal.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Tanner is affected by a mild version of this; he's a big admirer of the Comanche Indians, and the only person he displays any sexual interest in is a Native American woman working at the casino. He appears to see himself as a modern-day member of the tribe, or at least their equivalent.
  • For the Evulz: Marcus speculates that Tanner committed the robberies primarily because he enjoyed it.
  • Greasy Spoon: The T-Bone diner where you will be ordering a steak (medium rare) with a baked potato and iced tea, and you either don't want the corn on the cob or the green beans. And God help you if you try to order trout...
  • Hero Antagonist: Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker are lawmen trying to catch the Howard brothers.
  • Heroic BSoD: Toby's complicit and even masterminds most of the robberies, but falls into this when Tanner kills a security guard and a customer who fired back during the botched robbery of the crowded bank in Post. He even screams out at Tanner they weren't supposed to have any fatalities as they're running from the aggravated locals, and has a moment on the road where he was panicking and Tanner had to slap him out of it.
  • Honey Trap: Tanner feels the woman at the bar hitting on Toby is doing this, sidling up to him with his stack of thousands in chips in plain view. There is an indication she is at the very least a prostitute.
  • Hot Pursuit: In the wake of the final robbery, first by a crowd of angry locals, then taken up by the cops and Texas Rangers after Tanner breaks out the automatic rifle.
  • Hunting "Accident": The official story behind the demise of Toby and Tanners father was a hunting accident. Hamilton rather sarcastically points out that it was a strange time of year and location for a spot of hunting, considering the father was "accidentally" shot off-season in a barn.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: This is Toby's attitude toward his armed robberies and the goal behind them.
    • The tone of Toby's conversation with one of his sons as the endgame is in sight. He tells them that there will be stories about what his uncle and father have done. When his son says that he won't believe these lies, Toby is quick to correct him. He's not here to deny he's done wrong, he's here to let him know that he did in fact do those things.
    • When confronted by Hamilton after his success, he reiterates that his actions will break the Perpetual Poverty his family has been stuck in for generations and ultimately everything he did was to give his sons a better life.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Subverted. When Tanner opens fire from his assault rifle, he could easily kill most of the posse pursuing the brothers. Instead, he fires in their general direction, just to scare them away with the hail of bullets. Every other time he opens fire, the shots are lethal or very close calls.
  • Insistent Terminology: Ranger Hamilton repeatedly refers to the waitress Toby flirted with as "sassy."
  • Instant Seduction: At the casino, Tanner flirts with the hotel clerk. At night, he is shown having sex with a woman. In the morning, it is implied that the woman was the hotel clerk.
  • It's Personal:
    • The robberies performed on Texas Midlands Bank are very personal for the brothers, since the bank holds an insultingly bad mortgage on their farm, signed by their ill, dying mother to cover for her medical bills. They decide to pay off the bank with its own money.
    • Hamilton and Toby have good reason to want the other dead. Toby's plan resulted in the death of Hamilton's partner and Hamilton killed Tanner.
  • Karma Houdini: Toby masterminded a plan that involved a number of armed robberies, and resulted in several deaths. At the end, he successfully finishes what he set out to do. Though he clearly did not expect to also escape being locked up for what he did.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Hamilton and Toby imply that they might settle their dispute with a shootout in the near future, so Toby might not live very long as a karma houdini.
  • Karmic Thief: The brothers, who plan to steal from Texas Midlands bank (the bank which gave their mother a meager loan and is about to foreclose on their ranch) and use the money to pay back the loan. It goes a step further when Toby sets up a trust fund at the Texas Midlands bank. Each month, roughly $50,000 from the oil right goes into the trust fund, so the bank has a very good reason to ignore the loss of $40,000 and stop cooperating with the investigators.
  • The Last Stand: Tanner mounts one on a hilltop after separating from Toby and leading the cops and Rangers on a wild goose chase. He dies, but Toby escapes with the money.
  • Like an Old Married Couple: Marcus and Alberto are working together for most of their lives and Marcus is visibly struggling with the concept of going to retirement not because getting too old for duty, but because it will break his partnership with Alberto. He ends up broken once Tanner shoots Parker.
  • Manly Tears: After killing Tanner and avenging his slain partner, Hamilton chuckles and then breaks down.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: While not extremely so, the fellow responsible for handling the loan payoff tries his best to weasel out of accepting the money in time. The employees in the banks getting held up, meanwhile, are never portrayed with any particular negativity. Toby actually benefits from this in the long run as the bank has no desire to kick up a fuss about a loss of $40,000, not to mention his sudden mortgage payment, when the trust he sets up with them is bringing in more than that every month. This helps Toby escape arrest.
  • Mugging the Monster: "Boy, you'd think there were ten of me." Turned out two was sufficient.
  • New Old West: A textbook case, with outlaws, bank robberies, and all the attendant tropes, only updated to the modern day.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Toby strikes up a conversation with a waitress (while Tanner robs the bank across the street), talking about his sons and struggling to find work and leaves behind a $200 tip.
  • No Ending: The movie ends before we see if Toby and Hamilton ever settle their feud.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: Well, two Rangers, but still. Hell, Toby anticipated this as part of their plan: since they are only robbing small, local bank with no branches outside the state, there is no way to get more interest from authorities.
  • Papa Wolf: Toby wants a better life for his children and is willing to go to extremes to secure it.
  • Parental Hypocrisy: Toby wants his sons to live a life outside of the poverty and hardship of his own. Which means never doing the terrible things he's done and is about to do. Tanner echoes a similar hope for his nephew who is a lot like his younger self, telling Toby there's no reason he can't be a version of him that made the good choices.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Discussed. Toby describes it as a disease that has eaten away at his family for generations. An affliction he was not willing to allow his sons to suffer.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Downplayed with Marcus, who constantly makes racist jokes at his partner's expense but is clearly just trying to get a rise out of him.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The robberies are quite well-planned. The brothers only take loose bills from the drawers, nothing over $20 bills, to avoid dye packs and traced bills. Also, Texas Midland is a local bank with no branches outside of Texas, so the FBI won't get involved. They steal several cars before the robberies, use them as getaway cars, and bury them after getting away. They clean the money by trading it in for chips at an out-of-state-casino then cashing them back out with a check in the bank's name. It's only when Tanner sloppily robs a bank on his own with witnesses around that the Rangers finally have something to go on.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Mostly averted; both one of the customers in the last bank and Alberto die from rather messy head wounds. Tanner comes a little closer to playing it straight, however.
  • Reality Ensues: Turns out sticking up banks in rural Texas evokes a rather... adamant reaction from the locals. Twice the brothers cross paths with armed customers, the second time with lethal results, and a number of locals join in the chase during the climax. One of them even helps Marcus kill Tanner.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Thrill-seeking, impulsive Tanner is the Red to reasonable, level-headed Toby's Blue.
  • Retirony: Marcus is on the verge of retirement, but it's Alberto who dies during the standoff with Tanner. Alberto brings it on himself by being the only one to express concrete plans about his own retirement, which is the real killer in the trope.
  • The Rez: The brothers launder their money at an Indian casino in Oklahoma. There are some political overtones, but that's in keeping with the rest of the film.
  • Running Gag: Marcus continually ragging Alberto about his Indian-Mexican heritage.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Alberto, the hero's sidekick, dies in the third act.
  • Saving the Orphanage: The reason Toby comes up with the plan; he wants to buy out the reverse mortgage the bank holds and sign a lease with an oil company and leave the land in trust for his sons.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The gun-toting locals who chase the brothers after a nearly-botched bank robbery turn tail and flee when Tanner breaks out his automatic rifle.
  • Severely Specialized Store: The diner where the waitress serves only one meal: T-bone steak and a side, with iced tea.
    "Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987. We don't sell no goddamned trout!"
  • Sibling Team: Howard brothers trust each other with their lives and look out for the other one all the time. Their whole plan is a mix of Toby's cold calculations and Tanner's experience as a bank robber, executed together with no outsiders directly involved.
  • Short Con: The woman in the casino trying to seduce Toby might or might not be running a Honey Trap to dig into his large stack of chips. At least Tanner was dead-sure she's pulling a quick one on his brother.
  • Shout-Out: Tanner's line "I never met nobody got away with anything" may be one to No Country for Old Men, which not only also was set in West Texas, but whose tag line was "There are no clean getaways".
  • Staring Contest: While playing poker, Tanner nonchalantly calls a fellow player "chief", with absolutely zero ill intentions. The guy in question is a big, gruff Comanche who gets offended by this remark and stops Tanner when he's done with cards. Instead of going physical, both men exchange a few short quips and then just stare each other in the eyes, despite Tanner being half a head shorter. Eventually Tanner walks away, this being the only time he backs down from anyone.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker are tasked with investigating the robberies committed by the Howard brothers, making them the nominal antagonists of the film despite being thoroughly sympathetic characters.
  • Tempting Fate: While laundering money in casino for the first time (which involves turning the stolen money into chips, sit inside for few hours and then turn them back into a clear cheque), Tanner takes a handful of chips and goes playing cards, declaring that "you can't lose in poker". Subverted, as he ends up effortlessly doubling the size of their stack during that night and simply walks away when he thinks enough time has passed.
  • Thicker Than Water: Despite being clearly estranged from his ex-wife and sons while also owing them alimony, Toby does a series of heists to pay the mortgage on his farm and set his family for life thanks to a lease from the oil company. And Tanner helps him with all of that due to being his brother, being fully aware they both won't make a cent out of it and might end up dead or at least with lengthy prison sentences.
  • Title Drop: The attorney helping the brothers run their scheme tells them to be at the bank with money in hand on the day before the note is due, "come hell or high water."
  • The Unsolved Mystery: Hamilton will probably never know why Toby participated in the robberies. Since the bank refused to cooperate with the investigators, they did not know of the reverse-mortgage loan and failed to find any motives for Toby's involvement.
  • Villain Protagonist: Despite Jeff Bridges receiving top billing, the film focuses on the bank-robbing Howard brothers.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Howard brothers manage to achieve this status, even if by circumstances rather than making it part of their plan. Toby being Nice to the Waiter, barely any force used, no dead bodies, well-planned heists, small sums of stolen money and even making sure to explain to a random patron they are not stealing his money, but what is insured by the bank all adds up. But all bets are off once Tanner kills bank patrons during the last heist and then snipes out a Texas Ranger - by the time the story hits news, it's a case of botched bank job with four dead bodies over meager payoff.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Marcus and Alberto are long-time partners who constantly tease each other in a playful manner.
  • White and Grey Morality: While Tanner is a bit of a loose cannon, his and Toby’s bank robbing spree is motivated by sympathetic intentions. Against them are Marcus and Alberto, two Texas Rangers who are just doing their job and happen to be very good at it.


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