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Film / Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water is a 2016 crime drama directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, 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 film is the second entry in 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. Toby doesn't even tell most of his family she'd died until several weeks afterward, and his ex-wife's response is "good riddance". It's never made clear what she'd done, but Tanner does mention that she resented him for standing up to their abusive father.
  • Amoral Attorney: A mild and sympathetic example. The Howards have a lawyer who advise them on the legal end of their bank robbing spree, including how to launder the money and set up a trust that will provide for Toby's sons, even if both brothers are caught. This is clearly unethical and illegal, but it's made explicit that he's not just doing it for the money. They aren't paying him enough to justify the risk he's taking, but he's helping them anyway because he's disgusted at 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."
    • Tanner certainly doesn’t seem to have any qualms about killing two men who try to stop them at the bank. Then opening fire on a group of pursuers with an assault rifle. And finally killing a Texas Ranger.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: When Marcus confronts Toby at the end of the movie and asks about his motives, Toby asks if Marcus has a family and reiterates that everything he did was to ensure a better life for his sons. Marcus points out that Alberto also had a family, a family that now has no husband, father, or breadwinner because of what Toby and Tanner did.
  • Artistic License – Medicine: Toby is shot during their last bank heist. Tanner says he'll heal because the bullet went straight through, and Tanner is shown walking around perfectly fine at the end of the film. In reality, the placement of the entrance and exit wound means the bullet would have most likely perforated both his large and small intestine, with considerable bleeding and infection from intestinal contents leaking into his abdomen. Surgery would have been necessary as he would have died without it.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Con Man: 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.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: You see a pink mist showing Toby getting shot by one of the armed citizens as he jumps into the bed of the truck. Then as soon as he’s below the sides of the bed he’s perfectly safe from the hail of bullets. Tanner is as well inside the cab as he ducks below the dash. Then when Tanner opens fire on the pursuers with his assault rifle all of them are perfectly safe behind their vehicles. The most egregious example is a guy who manages to get right behind his truck door just as it gets hit and leaves a bullet hole. Even from the distance where Tanner was shooting a car door would’ve been about as effective as a rose bush against an assault rifle.
  • 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.
    "These concealed-carry permits sure complicate a bank robbery, don't they?"
  • Evil Overlooker: More like Antagonist Overlooker; the poster features Marcus Hamilton's head "watching" the protagonists.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After stalling the police long enough for Toby to get away, Tanner simply sits down on the hilltop and waits for the inevitable, taking one last look at the surrounding prairie and seeming completely at peace with himself before he is finally killed by Marcus.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Tanner lampshades, from early in the film, that he doesn't expect to get away with the crime spree, which is echoed by several others. Played with, in that their plan is designed such that, even if they get caught after the string of robberies, Toby's sons will still be set for life. It's clearly implied that both brothers are willing to go to prison, or even die, to make that happen.
  • Fall Guy: It's unintentional, but the authorities believe that a former cellmate of Tanner's is the second bank robber after Tanner is killed and Toby is officially cleared by the investigation.
  • Felony Murder: Tanner is the only one who ever physically harmed anyone, and was ultimately killed in the process. Nonetheless, Hamilton makes clear that the law would hold Toby responsible for planning the robberies. If the law didn't get him, he implies that he's prepared to hold Toby responsible himself.
  • 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. Played with, in that Tanner's criminal background actual makes him appropriately vigilant and suspicious, while Toby's more trusting nature puts them at risk a couple of times.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: When picking up a car for their final heist, Toby remarks that it's good enough for their purposes but wouldn't win any races. The robbery goes wrong and they find themselves pursued first by a posse of angry citizens, then by law enforcement.
  • For the Evulz: Marcus speculates that Tanner committed the robberies primarily because he enjoyed it. Averted in that Tanner does seem to enjoy robbing banks, but his real motivation is loyalty to his brother.
  • 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...
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: While the brothers use violent means, their ultimate goals are understandable, even noble in their own way. Opposing them are two lawmen who likewise are not bad people but who's profession puts them in the brother's way. By the time the ending comes around, neither side feels like a hero or a villain.
  • 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.
  • Honest John's Dealership: To acquire getaway vehicles for the robberies, the brothers have an agreement with a used car dealer. They pay him cash under the table for cars (which they bury on their property after using); the dealer then reports the cars stolen and collects the insurance money.
  • Honey Trap: When a woman approaches Toby at a casino bar, with thousands of dollars worth of chips in full view, Tanner runs her off, assuming she's there to either rob or extort him. It's left ambiguous what her intentions were. (Given that Toby is played by Chris Pine, it's not entirely impossible that she was legitimately hitting on him.)
  • 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 what is presumably the same woman.
  • 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.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: Downplayed; Tanner and Toby are robbing an oppressive institution, but their plan is to use the money for their own ends rather than distribute it to the needy. However, Toby does give a very generous tip to a struggling waitress. This ends up saving him later when she declines to identify him to law enforcement.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Played with. Toby robbed multiple banks, getting several people killed in the process, and escaped punishment in the end, successfully getting the money he was after. But one of the people who died was his brother, he was non-fatally shot, and it's clear that he'll be haunted forever by the blood that was spilled.
    • Texas Midlands bank, whose predatory lending practices led directly to the bank robberies. The $40,000 that was stolen from them was presumably insured, and they end up running the trust for Toby's oil money that will end up earning them much more.
  • 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.
  • Last Stand: Deliberately invoked by Tanner. He knew very well, when he ran off into the hills, that there was no way he was escaping. But by engaging the police in a shootout, he drew the attention away from Toby, allowing him to escape with the money, and set up a better life for the next generation.
  • 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 an one bank isn't part of the chain that holds their loan and the manager is portrayed especially positively. 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.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: Being filmed in New Mexico Mountains are clearly visible in the background of many scenes, most notably at Toby’s ranch. The Texas Panhandle is one of the flattest places in America and the nearest mountains are about 300 miles away.
  • Mugging the Monster: "Boy, you'd think there were ten of me." Turned out two was sufficient.
  • Native American Casino: The brothers launder their money at an Indian casino in Oklahoma.
  • 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.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: During one of their stake-outs, Alberto confides to Marcus that he finds some irony in how two white people have lost their land just like Alberto's ancestors did, but now there's no conquering army.
    Alberto: [points at the bank across the street] Now it's these sons of bitches.
  • 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.
  • Police Are Useless: When Hamilton speaks to his replacement at the end about Toby being a suspect she states that no witnesses have identified him, that the DA couldn’t get financial records, that he has no criminal record so he’s not considered a suspect. However the Casino would have surveillance video of him with Tanner, and a lot of money, on the day of the first robberies. Being as they know Tanner had a partner this would make him the prime suspect.
  • 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.
  • Red Herring: In-Universe, an old cellmate of Tanner is believed to be his accomplice by Marcus's old ranger collages instead of Toby.
  • 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.
  • 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 (medium rare) 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!"
  • Shown Their Work: Toby gives his underage son a beer. The son doesn't drink, possibly due to censors, but in several states, including the film's setting of Texas, it is legally permissible for a parent/guardian to let their child(ren) have alcohol on private property. Likewise, in some states, a parent/guardian can order an alcoholic beverage at a restaurant and allow their child(ren) to drink it.
  • 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.
  • A Simple Plan: The very first robbery right in the opening goes sideways when the brothers are informed by the elderly clerk she can't handle them the money, as the manager didn't arrive yet and only he has the keys to the money lockers. The old lady seems to be more annoyed than amused or shocked by their lack of preparation for something so obvious.
  • 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".
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The armed bank customer who draws a gun, screws up the last robbery and kicks off the climatic chase receives neither dialogue, a name, or even listing in the credits.
  • Staring Contest: While playing poker, Tanner nonchalantly calls a Comanche man at the table "chief". It's clear he doesn't intend it as an insult, but the guy takes offense. They stare each other down and trade a few quips, but then Tanner backs down. Given Tanner's personality, that's a big deal, and probably motivated by respect for the man and his culture, rather than fear.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: 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.
  • Suspicious Ski Mask: Toby and Tanner Howard wear these during their bank robberies. The movie portrays their criminality as a case of Grey-and-Gray Morality since they target the bank branches operated by the very bank that put them into debt through a reverse mortgage to cover their mother's medical bills. They intend to pay the bank back with the money they rob from them.
  • 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.
  • Target Spotter: A local man who helps Marcus shoot Tanner by using binoculars to help him with his range.
  • Tempting Fate: The money laundering plan involves buying chips at a casino, sitting on them for a few hours, then converting them into a legitimate check. The first time they do this, Tanner takes a handful of chips and goes playing cards, declaring that "you can't lose in poker". Subverted, as he ends up doubling the size of their stack during that night and seems to have no difficulty quitting while he's ahead.
  • 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.
    • Toby's oldest son also shows loyalty to him despite the estrangement, saying he won't believe anything bad he hears about him. Toby is quick to point out those things will be most likely true, even if still unpleasant.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Virtues: Tanner is probably the most villainous character in the film, given his aggressive and often violent nature. Even so, he's both fearless and totally loyal to his family. He doesn't expect to either get away with the robberies or personally profit, but does them anyway, because his brother asked him to (and for the good of his nephews). At the climax, he deliberately draws the police into a stand-off that he has no chance of surviving, just to give his brother a chance to escape.
  • 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 (from a bank that everyone seems to resent). They even make sure to explain to any customers that their own money is not in danger, and refuse to steal one customer's gun (though this is lampshaded as foolish). 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: Tanner and Toby's bank robberies are motivated by sympathetic intentions, and they don't intend for anyone to get hurt in the process. Against them are Marcus and Alberto, two Texas Rangers who are just doing their job and happen to be very good at it. This gets somewhat complicated when their final robbery results in four deaths, including both Tanner and Alberto. Marcus points out that, whatever his motives, Toby was also responsible for the deaths, making him effectively a murderer.
  • World-Weary Waitress: The waitress at the diner definitely qualifies. Her interaction with the two Texas Rangers investigating local robberies who stop at her diner makes it clear she's seen it all and is in no mood for any bullshit.
    Waitress: What don't you want?
    Marcus: Pardon?
    Waitress: I've been working here forty-four years. Ain't nobody ever ordered nothing but t-bone steak and a baked potato. Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987. We don't serve no goddamn trout. So either you don't want corn-on-the-cob, or you don't want green beans. So what don't you want?
    Marcus: (After the waitress has taken their order) Well, tell you one thing. No one's gonna rob this son-of-a-bitch.